Jon Ippolito on 14 Dec 2000 23:55:15 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] an open letter about .museum

4 December 2000

An open letter to Cary Karp ( 
President, Museum Domain Management Association
Director, Department of Information Technology, Swedish Museum of National History

Dear Dr. Karp:

In a time of accelerated change, small decisions can have far-reaching effects--and that fact compels me to voice a perspective, outside of my official capacity as Assistant Curator of Media Arts and not necessarily representing the position of my museum, that I have not seen aired in the debate thus far. 

As you know, even as innocent a choice as how to name Web sites can gently steer us toward a more open or closed society. Take the recent decision by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, to add shiny new domain suffixes to dusty old ".org" and its peers--the first such additions to the Internet's name space since the 1980s. As a driving force behind the Museum Domain Management Association's proposal of a ".museum" suffix, you must have been very pleased at ICANN's approval of .museum along with ".info," ".coop," and four other generic Top Level Domains. By proposing to reserve a sector of the Internet name space specifically to museums, you and your colleagues have shown that you understand the profound identity crisis facing museums at the dawn of the digital age. In a world where artists, musicians, and other producers can tap into the Internet to reach a far-flung audience instantaneously, it's understandable that brick-and-mortar institutions wo!
uld be anxious to redefine themselves beyond their previous roles as centralized repositories of culture. From my dual perspective as an online artist and a new media curator, I am convinced that this redefinition is essential to the long-term livelihood of both museums and the cultural heritage they are charged with preserving.

Of course, you can't redefine a plot of real estate--geographic or virtual--without redefining your neighbors' estates. Yet one question that I have not seen discussed in the public debate is how the addition of a .museum suffix might affect online creativity that takes place *outside* a museum setting. I personally believe that this issue should be critical to anyone who cares about museums or the future of online culture. Although I am writing from a visual arts perspective, I believe my concerns may translate into other museological disciplines as well.

To understand the ways .museum might obscure online creativity, it's important to understand why .org and company stimulated it. Before .museum, all someone needed to try out a new curatorial paradigm was twenty-five dollars for a domain name, a healthy dose of sweat equity, and some interesting content. Armed with .orgs and .nets, creative people found new ways to share culture outside of the constraints of the offline status quo. For artists, this meant exhibiting on the Web's boundless frontier instead of trying to get a foot in the door of a SoHo gallery. For critics, it meant posting to unmoderated listserves instead of pining to be published in _Art in America_. For viewers with a modem, it meant looking at art anytime, anywhere--without paying MoMA's admission price. Art thrived in this environment; in 1995 8% of all Web sites were made by artists. And because there was no special naming convention to segregate artworks from the rest of culture, many people stumbled upo!
n art sites who might never have stepped foot inside a museum.

Enter .museum. In contrast to generic suffixes like .org and .edu, .museum represents a much more restricted criterion. For the first time, permission to register a top-level domain will be determined by membership in a private association, the International Council of Museums (ICOM), the vast majority of whose members--we must be honest here--have hitherto treated the Internet primarily as an electronic billboard to advertise their offline programs. (By comparison, academic institutions have a reasonable claim to .edu given that they helped get the fledgling Internet on its feet.) Leaving aside the question of whether the unprecedented specificity of .museum opens the door to comparable domain suffixes like .travelservice and .florist, I am curious about the effect you and your colleagues expect .museum to have on online creativity.

In its October 3rd press release, ICOM stated that a major goal of the new domain suffix was to bridge the digital divide:

"Many museums already have a presence on the Internet, while others, due partly to financial and technical limitations, are moving into cyberspace more slowly. Developing a clear cyberspace identity for the museum community as a whole is expected to help bridge this digital divide. Proponents believe that .museum, along with value-added services that can be provided to its members, will give museums that have not yet participated actively in the development of the Internet the support to do so."

I am sure that this argument appealed to ICANN, which is charged with the difficult task of expanding the Web's name space without undermining its open architecture. (ICANN seems to take this mandate seriously enough to have rejected suffixes like .union and .health as "insufficiently democratic.") Your own arguments echo this egalitarian appeal to broaden the representation of cultural institutions online; for example, you argued that a .arts suffix would exclude museums devoted to science or history. So let's assume for the sake of argument that .museum will encourage more smaller museums to take the leap to cyberspace. What of the countless offline alternative spaces and exhibition halls that do not maintain a permanent collection of objects? Many have played critical roles in nurturing contemporary artists and movements; you can't think of Cindy Sherman without thinking of Artists Space or Robert Mapplethorpe without Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center. Yet once we museu!
ms have claimed the best of the virtual real estate, what chance do these numerous alternative spaces have of competing for hits from the lay public? In an attention economy like the Web, small advantages can make big differences. Jane Doe looks up the artist Bill Viola in a search engine and gets links for five .orgs and one .museum. Which link is she going to follow?

The gap between .museum haves and have-nots looks even wider once I take into account the countless virtual studios and exhibition spaces where artists create and exhibit their work. There are a host of fascinating and valuable museumlike resources online that would not qualify for the International Council of Museum's definition of a museum--which at its root requires institutions to collect *material* ( This definition would exclude all online cultural archives, whether they collect Internet art projects, digital videos of political conventions, or audio testimonies to the Holocaust. I believe that many in the online community will view the International Council of Museums' support for .museum as a smokescreen to cover the embarrassing fact that artist collectives and online art sites, from ada'web to Nicholas Pioche's WebLouvre, established important online presences well before their brick-and-mortar equivalents. If the shoe were on the ot!
her foot, wouldn't brick-and-mortar institutions balk at a rule that forbade them from using the word "Museum" in their signage if they didn't have a Web site?

If .museum doesn't exactly bridge the digital divide, then perhaps its true benefit lies merely in convenience. I've seen arguments that .museum would make it easier for people specifically in search of brick-and-mortar museums. Doubtless this may be true to an extent, but studies indicate that very few people actually look for things online by guessing the url; surely these people could use search engines or the various category-oriented directories online (like the Musee d'Art Contemporain de Montreal's excellent Mediatheque). Another convenience I've seen ascribed to .museum would be the reduction in time-consuming cybersquatting litigation. Yet registering "" will do nothing by itself to stop others from registering such homonyms as "" or "" (Memo to MoMA: you missed these.) Do these marginal benefits to brick-and-mortar museums justify decreased attention for Internet-based nonprofits? In answering t!
his question, it's important to keep in mind that our mandate as museums is not to compete with the cultural production going on outside our walls, but to reflect and preserve it. How unfortunate it would be for established museums to unwittingly erase the heritage they are meant to preserve by gerrymandering the name space!

Software engineers like Gene Kan predict that the rise of file-sharing protocols, instant messenging, and other non-Web communication will splinter the Internet's name space into enough competing protocols to thwart the control of organizations like ICANN. Until that happens, how do you propose to counteract the shadow that .museum might cast on the broader cultural landscape? Do you believe the International Council of Museums should drop the requirement that registrants of ".museum" fit its definition of a museum? Or might it be better merely to require registrants to supply new definitions to be uploaded to to stimulate debate on the subject?

It would be especially misguided for institutions whose mandate is to preserve history to condone a protocol that would encourage its erasure. I am very interested in hearing your thoughts on this subject in the hopes that a dialogue will help elucidate the proper function of a museum in the 21st century.

Jon Ippolito

Valerie Jullien, Communications Officer
International Council of Museums

Kenneth Hamma, Assistant Director
The J. Paul Getty Museum

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