Project post: The Quest to Engage the Public in Scholarly Conversations Online

How can the internet change the way that we conduct research in the humanities? This is a question that scholars have been asking since the earliest days of the web, but as our own relationship with the internet develops through the growth of social networks and smart phones, we continue to find new answers to this question. In my February post I discussed the ways that museums are reaching out to involve adults in the exhibition planning process. These efforts usually take place outside of the museum on interactive online platforms. post: Notes on Modern and Contemporary Art Around the Globe takes these efforts to engage the public a step further. post is a new interactive research platform developed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was launched just two months ago and the concept is still relatively new, but hopefully the website will blossom into a lively community of amateur researchers working alongside scholars affiliated with the MoMA and beyond. The idea is that users will contribute to bibliographies and research, as well as engage in meaningful discussions about contemporary art. In many ways the idea is an elaboration on the idea of community curation. But rather than solicit the community to help plan an exhibition, post brings amateur art lovers, scholars, and artists from outside of the museum into the conversation at an earlier research stage. The resulting collaboration will then feed back into the work of the museum.

The concept for post came out of an initiative at MoMA called C-MAP, short for Contemporary and Modern Art perspectives. MoMA developed C-MAP in 2009 in an effort to reconsider the theoretical underpinnings of the dominant art historical narrative, which tends to privilege Western European and North American perspectives. This group of scholars, curators, and artists from around the world focuses on researching the vibrant modern art that is currently under-represented in art historical literature and exhibitions.

While C-MAP serves as a network for scholarly activity at MoMA and beyond, post extends the conversation to the public. In an essay on the MoMA Inside Out blog, Mellon C-MAP fellow Miki Kaneda explains the significance of the name post. Working names for the website ranged from erudite references in foreign languages to colloquial phrases. Ultimately the development team settled on post because it was generic. But the name post implies more than an open working ground. As a verb, the title is also a directive. post encourages users to be active consumers of information. Kaneda writes: “post an essay, image, video, sound file, or comment in response to other posts on the site.” As people contribute more, the platform will become stronger. The name is not capitalized, even at the beginning of a sentence, which could signify the non-hierarchical concept of the website.

MoMA’s description of post conveys the excitement of what collaborative research could mean for the future of art history:

post is a site for encounters between the established and experimental, the historical and emerging, the local and global, the scholarly and artistic. An online journal, archive, exhibition space, and open forum that takes advantage of the non hierarchical nature of the Internet, post seeks to spark in-depth explorations of the ways in which modernism is being redefined. The site’s contents are intended to build nuanced understandings of the histories that shape the practices of artists and institutions today. As a networked platform, post aims to provide an alternative to the model of a unified art historical narrative.

post challenges the monolithic narrative of white-cube modernism by hosting multiple conversations at the same time. The website therefore has the potential to help us rethink the way museum spaces are curated and organized.

Ideally post will come to support a large online community of active participants. So far, few users have posted questions in response to the thought-provoking content on the site. However, one of the more productive chains shows the potential of the platform. “Experimental Music in Japan (A Short List),” posted by Miki Kaneda, a member of the post editorial team, consists of a short bibliography on the subject of avant-garde music in Japan. Kaneda writes:

This list is intended as a starting point from which we hope to develop a growing list of sources on experimental music in postwar Japan.

This list is not an authoritative bibliography. It can grow. Are crucial texts missing? Out-of-print publications that should be included? We welcome your additions, with commentary and links to the material if possible, and we encourage you to send us feedback on the list in general.

So far two users have contributed. Together their suggestions more than double the length of the original list. One of the striking things about Kaneda’s solicitation for contributions is her willingness for support. She does not present herself as a museum authority with all the answers, instead she levels the playing field and benefits from the generosity of those willing to share their own knowledge. MoMA seems to be harnessing the potential of digital networks to bring out collaborative modes of working and the willingness to share information online. Kaneda personally acknowledged both contributors and wrote:  “These are great, Gamall and Joseph! Thanks for the additions.”

As readers interested in the humanities, this kind of collaborative research probably surprises us. These research practices are more prevalent in the sciences. The efficacy of crowd-sourcing in first-rate scientific research has been empirically proven through the success of projects such as Galaxy Zoo. MoMA not only reaches out to potential museum visitors through post, but perhaps more importantly, it seems to be working to overcome biases toward individual authority and authorship in humanities research circles.

The scarcity of responses to the substantial and thought-provoking material on post stands in contrast to the proliferation of comments and activity we see on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest each day. In fact, MoMA is using more established social media platforms to get the word out about post. In response to one Twitter user’s praise of post @postatMoMA wrote: “Wow. Thanks. We like to be praised. We like even more when people get involved. post post post post post!”