The Self

Many of our conversations in class today concerned the museum visitor historically, a changing sense of “the self”, how this contributes to identity and the ways in which museums engage their audience. Our conversation widened to explore the role of social networking technologies and the issues associated with self-selection and collaborative filtering and how that relates to a museum’s function, its authority and the role of the curator.

It is interesting to imagine that today people generally interact with a greater number of other people than at any other time in history. However these people are also far less likely to encounter someone who does not already share similar interests. One obvious conclusion is that we are in danger of losing the ability to be critical thinkers, to debate issues, and engage in rational conversations with consenting adults who disagree with each other.

You can see evidence of this in our political news media. There is a great deal of emotion, no shared language, and next to nothing that opposing parties can agree upon. As CFM’s “Museums & Society: 2034” study discusses, self-selection has led to a polarized society where constituencies gather in safe clusters of like-minded peers, institutions and their content. Technology plays a role in this but it may be more of a symptom of something deeper than technology as an instigator. It is always easiest to blame the tool. This does not mean that social networking technologies are inherently bad. But they do reveal a tendency that is growing stronger and should be better understood in the context of museums.

The idea of self-selection and the shaping of identity has a long history that predates Facebook and other applications by decades. In fact the shaping of identity in our political and commercial world  is largely informed by psychoanalysis and its contributions to commercial marketing and public relations beginning in the late 1930s. At this time analysts began seeking a practical means of applying their science to the public at large. I recently saw a recent BBC production titled “The Century of the Self “which explores this history in four chapters.  Its one of the most powerful and timely documentaries that I have seen. It is a must for anyone thinking about these issues. It is available as streaming media on

Tim Ventimiglia


10 responses to “The Self

  1. The issue of self-interest and encounters with others of similar interests is a complex issue. The personal choice of who to interact with comes as a natural tendency/process with being human. The simple act of living in a city like New York, already places individuals in a city of other like-minded people. (Others who also chose to live in New York). In this example, the issue of geography already reduces the number of encounters with others who do not share the same interest of living in NYC.
    In terms of losing our ability to be critical thinkers, could it also be that we are educated to think with more open minds? Being that encounters with individuals of different opinions are rare, when we do meet these individuals, perhaps we value their perspectives and just let it sink in, instead of debating it. People come from all different backgrounds and these encounters are places where common understandings can form and happen. With the growing interest and ease of travel and tourism, physical and online encounters with people of completely different upbringing and perspectives are becoming easier. However, because we already consider them to be exotic and foreign prior to the actual encounter, I believe that what we learn from them is placed into a separate part of our brain. Perhaps some individuals consider their views, for a lack of a better word, alien. These shared thoughts may not necessarily be joined with our own but are stored separately because we are not accustomed to it. It can’t be wrong / right. It is simply viewed as being different. We will still have to think critically to separate right from wrong, and we’ll most definitely still hold a certain bias. But perhaps, we’ve come to a point where we’re just more accepting of other perspectives and different views.
    I don’t believe that social networking technologies like Facebook and Twitter are instigators of the ‘self-interest’ condition. However, these technologies have made it clearly apparent through groups of friends and activities that the ‘self-selection’ condition exists. Another social networking technology that takes ‘self-selection’ to a higher extreme is E—Harmony. From their advertisements on television, applicants fill out numerous pages of information to do with all aspects of their self-interests, from food to personality, preference of sports to choice of living habits. A month after the application is filed, applicants are matched by those who work at E-Harmony based on the answers of the interest questionnaire.

    Kelly Lo

  2. By critical I did not mean judgmental. Perhaps its too late and we are in an era of passivity and have lost the ability to analyze and take apart an idea, look at it objectively from all angles with the aim of uncovering meaning. The recent comment by Kmcaleer on the “Masterpieces” post on the Chinese use of the term “Cultural Relics” is a good example of critical thinking.

    E-Harmony is somewhat frightening as the stakes are much higher, especially if the ultimate goal is to find a compatible mate. Imagine a whole generation of children who’s parents met this way discovering that their very existence was determined by computer generated matchmaking. Attending a lot of museum events might be a better way – an idea for the YoCo crowd.

  3. But what about surrogacy and the medical/technological advances that are changing how human life is literally created? Is this an expression of this “self” interested society–creating the perfect child to suit one’s self needs?

  4. museumdesignlab

    Perhaps. But lets try and steer this back to museums.

  5. After watching the Century of the Self part 1, it got me thinking about Freud’s idea of human psychology’s point of view and the relationship of like minded people agreeing or in Freud’s case disagrees for a long period of time. I see the purpose of debate is to let our society evolve, which ever group with a weaker ideas get defeated. Therefore I think there’s no right or wrong but popular ideas. And channels like facebooks and technology like blogging allow people to visually and verbally take a stand at what they believe in. Although this makes it easier for like minded people to communicated with each other and form their own society. The internet still allows people to debate and argue like in blogging people can post comments to counterstrike theories etc.

    Taking from Freud’s idea of human’s prime instinct is to seek pleasure and that’s what drives them. (Thus the cigarette ad campaign by Edward Bernays marketed towards women who wanted to be empowered over men). I also realized that another human prime instinct is “to be heard”. That is also what drives the women to fall for the cigarette ad campaign, is to have the world heard their existence and empowerment over men by smoking in public and not to be ignored. That is where I think the museums might be going for in the future, letting user to be heard by others within the museum. Not just being an audience but also be the story teller.

    Museums have always had the role of telling stories or broadcasting information, but with new technology today like blogging and facebook (broadcasting your status or event invites) and similar to a “Museum of All” (Wikipedia), users can also input their own point of view of certain information into the internet, so why not have the museum allow its audience to input their own information that is related to the exhibition. This information might still need to get approved by the curator who decides what’s appropriate or what not?

    Along with the video, there is a debate about how humans ought to be trusted or not trusted as being rational and whether or not the government should be in charge of the public opinion or should the people take charge of the industry in US? These comparisons relate to my question of whether the audience should be in charge of the information being broadcast in museum or should the museum take total control of information?

  6. museumdesignlab

    Good comments. In the next two parts of this series the story evolves toward our contemporary definition of “The Self” which may be even more interesting to discuss relative to social networking products.

  7. The Design USA show that just opened at the Cooper-Hewitt provides all patrons with an iPod that allows them to comment, electronically and publicly, on every piece on the exhibition, and on the the show in general. Four computer monitors at the end project their comments (with proper credit given to the patron). It brings them into the exhibition, which is in part about critical dialogue about design.
    Museums may become increasingly led my user content, which is pretty interesting. I’m both compelled by and scared of this idea. It’s great to be heard, and even better to be engaged, but only if you’re being challenged, or drawn outside your box. Comments and input are worth less if they’re your own repeated script, if they’re rote. They’re best if they’re thoughtful and maybe even in reaction to something that really makes you question and work through your own ideas. That’s why I think museums have to lead, too.
    So, returning to the conversation of the idea of self, I actually wonder if it’s true that our encounters are more limited than they used to be. Weren’t people much more segregated along ideological lines before? Weren’t people much more likely to live with others of their own colour/culture/religion? Aren’t people today more used to encountering others with different viewpoints and beliefs? So, can’t museums be more daring in how they engage their visitors in debate?

  8. I agree museums do need to be more daring in how they engage visitors in debate and discussion. The best example I have seen of this type of museum led content and integration with debate is the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. At the end of the museum, there is a sitting room with large couches and large video screens. Projected on the screens are questions (with images that are related) that ask the visitors highly charged questions about our current world, such as issues about freedom of speech verse government control. As the questions are presented, the visitors can vote on which of the two options they would pick. Often this creates an atmosphere for discussion between people, as well as self-reflection about ones own ideals. It is very interesting way to get people to be challenged and interact with people they would not normally be around, also in the environment of the Anne Frank Museum it is a very affecting way to engage people.

  9. The Design USA exhibition that opened at the Cooper-Hewitt is an interesting show to examine in reference to the integration of new technologies in the museum space. I think there is so much pressure to be using technology in every aspect of our lives today, even though most museum state they wont use certain technologies unless they help out the exhibition. Yet, I think we are going through a learning curve in a way with the possible best and most effective use of technology.
    At the Cooper-Hewitt, a visitor can rent an iPod touch and tour through the galleries with it. The iPod has interviews from the designers in the show, more photographs, and a comment function where the visitors themselves can write comments about what they see. These comments then show up on the museum webpage, twitter, video screens at the end of the exhibition, and can be accessed by other visitors on the iPods.
    Two issues happened when I toured through the galleries with the iPod. First, I found that I really did not use the iPod at all. I forgot about it and was just absorbed in the exhibition itself. Where as, my friend stood in the corner and only played on his iPod. He did not really look through the majority of the exhibition and would only go to certain sections after he had looked it up on the iPod. Throughout the whole exhibition, a large percent of the people did not know how to use the iPod, and this was across age groups as a whole. Second, the comments at the end where very interesting. Yet, as talked about in class when is there enough information or comments? Most of the comments were relevant and wonderful to see how people reacted, but some where just people playing with the comment function and writing pointless messages.
    I loved the option of the iPod, it allows a visitor to access so much more information (that is also easily adjusted if needed) and seeing other people’s comments is great, because when they are relevant it creates discussion. Yet, at times it would be great to have a stronger authority voice, I could read on the iPod all the visitors comments, but not any of the scholars or museums thoughts of what I was looking at. I think we are still in a transitional phase with the use of technology in museums that is very relevant to where museums will be going. If we can look at now what is working and what is not in the museum space it can create growth and re-focus. The changing scope of museums and audience does not mean that museums need to step back their authority, but re-direct that authority and interrelate it with the populace.


  10. I agree, I think that we are at a transitional phase, and the question that seems to be the elephant in the room is “how much information can the audience take?”. In one of the readings, a comparison was made – an museum gallery is like a dinner party – the curator (or host) selects 6 works of art to place in a room, and each is specifically chosen as a guest to interact and converse with one another. If you place a seventh work in the room, perhaps a garrulous object, the rest of the items in the room change. Isn’t it the same with incorporating a piece of technology into the dinner party group? Susan Stewart writes about this in On Longing as well.
    Coming back to the original question of how much information do we really need – I think the sense of self needs to be reviewed, but also the cycle of the self. Where is the audience in their life, their education, their interest? Or are they simply perpetually curious?

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