The Social Function of Museums in the Digital Age

By Susana Smith Bautista.

Published by The Arts Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Museums of the 21st century play a central role in decreasing knowledge gaps and in leveling knowledge due to increased opportunities for participation, entertainment, and motivation offered by new digital technologies, but there may be a hidden benefit for maintaining knowledge gaps. In 1970, Tichenor, Donohue, and Olien proposed their knowledge gap theory that sought to explain how people acquire information differently, resulting in a gap in the amount of knowledge separating those of higher and lower socio-economic status. Despite the multifunctional and populist approach of modern museums, most people still expect to learn something new from their visit; they hope to increase their cultural capital or fill their knowledge gap. Museums are seeking creative ways to communicate art and their expert knowledge to all visitors, who are encouraged to construct their subjective interpretations from information provided by the museum, but also to seek new information and aesthetic experiences on their own. Art museums represent the vanguard of originality and creativity in our society, yet their established role provides a necessary balance and anchor to the uncertainty and anxiety often associated with contemporary art, and with our rapidly changing digital society that presents an abundance of knowledge and opinions. The important question is whether this popularization of knowledge is a means for museums to maintain the gap necessary to preserve their hierarchical status and power, or whether it motivates and empowers visitors to learn enough to close that gap and deconstruct the institutional power structure. Perhaps the real goal should not be to close the gap and have everyone possess the same knowledge, but to inspire individuality in the interpretation and performance of knowledge.

Keywords: Museums, Art, Knowledge Gap, Motivation, Digital Age

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp.9-20. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.162MB).

Susana Smith Bautista

Ph.D. Student, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, USA

Susana Smith Bautista is a Ph.D. student and Provost Fellow at the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Southern California, where she also received her Masters degree in Art History/ Museum Studies. Her Bachelors degree is in Government from Pomona College. Susana has almost twenty years experience in the art world in Los Angeles, New York, and Greece working with museums, commercial galleries and non-profit art spaces, curating exhibitions, lecturing, and writing art criticism. She was Executive Director of the Mexican Cultural Institute of Los Angeles, Editorial Director of, and Associate with the Daniel Saxon Gallery. Born in Pasadena, California, Susana also served the city as Arts and Culture Commissioner for six years. At USC, Susana is researching the role of museums in the digital age, how new technologies are affecting traditional museum practices and society, and the global interplay between museums, private arts institutions, and governmental bodies. She is a part of a USC research team working with Anne Balsamo on a MacArthur Foundation grant, “Inspiring the Technological Imagination: Museums and Libraries in the Digital Age.” Her goals include contributing to research and policies that would better enable museums worldwide to understand and adapt to the digital age.


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