Style versus substance.

An old debate that is especially important to those presenting cultural, heritage or scientific ideas beyond expert communities. Even if you are very familiar with this stuff, indulge me while I sketch a little caricature.

Some people cling to the notion that as long as the substance – the core idea, the intellectual meat – is solid that style, presentation, tastefulness simply do not matter: if people are sufficiently interested they will do the work necessary to consume the material. Hence, the classic academic journal: dry, formal, deliberately unemotional and with some of the most eye-wateringly ugly graphic design and layouts you will ever see. Standardised presentation is seen to level the playing field and prevent ideas being oversold.

At the other end of the spectrum (typically) are television, games, toys and so on. These may be loosely inspired by a notion drawn from academia (Pokemon owe a debt to Darwin) but are often casually panned as having no depth. Dismissed as being shallow mimicry of their inspiration and little more than fluff, requiring nothing of their audience but passive, slack-jawed ingestion.

Each of these extremes are built on the false idea that it is worthwhile to separate our intellectual pursuits from our embodied, emotional and narrative experiences. In the former case this is due to a sense of rarified idolisation of abstract thinking as the only consistently valuable mode in which to understand the world (the legacy of Plato’s ‘Realm of Ideas’?). In the latter case, the motivation is simpler – mass appeal equals mass market – feed a simple set of desires with the most effective material. Examples that counter each of these extremes abound – in fact, the entire fields of applied and fine art powerfully demonstrate the falseness of the distinction. More pedagogically, we have illuminating data visualisations, the finest, holistically designed museums or joyfully, explorable maps of historic place-names.

Human engagement is nearly always most powerful when it works across this spectrum – on hearts and minds at once. In the museum sector this could be ultimate goal – to share a little rarefied, specialist knowledge in such a way that it is remembered with pleasure. I like to think we’re getting pretty good at it – there is nothing better than the sense that you are being led competently and empathetically through a complex and detailed subject by an expert. I tell student archaeologists– creating public presentations of their first ever excavations – that they are chefs: their fieldwork created an array of ingredients, now they have to make them delicious.

What then of openness? Well, first of all let me clarify that what I’m talking about is the whole myriad of projects and movements loosely collected under the banners and ideologies of Open Source and Open Access. Projects which involve not only the end results but works-in-progress (code, articles, content of many kinds) to be be witnessed, understood and even altered by all who have the inclination to do so.

This openness offers what I think is a new aspect to the old style/substance debate. Generally, there is still a fairly hard boundary between creators and consumers: the academic book or article was the product of a research process that took place behind closed doors and even the most deconstructed reality TV has little of the creative process exposed. Museum sector products – exhibitions, popular books, shows, websites – are also generally created by small, specialist groups with, at best, the consultation of a select community of consumers. Audience research generally takes place as a separate component before or after the creative process.

For academia I think arguments are really gaining force on the side of open access – not only of research products but of research process (I wrote more academically about this amongst archaeologists – long version in my thesis). Fantastic projects such as Shaun Graham, Ian Milligan and Scott Weingart’s public digital history book: The Historian’s Macroscope , research-oriented blogs in science and elsewhere are helping lift the lid on academic thinking. I’m well aware that there’s still a long way to go, but for me the benefits are very clear: fundamentally, and most obviously, transparency. The social effects are also worthwhile: increased dynamism, connectivity and the blurring of boundaries between expert communities. Scholars are realising how much their practice, quality control and even ideas were dictated by 20th century publication media. In the shift away from this falsely-levelled playing field, thinkers are reflexively engaging in the new problems the transition entails.

What then of works intended for wider audiences, for non-experts, for people who have never encountered a topic, want a moment of inspiration and then will get on with their lives? What does open production practice have to offer them?

Champion of public science Neil deGrasse Tyson:

A soundbite is useful because it triggers interest in someone, who then goes and puts in the effort to learn more. Take the moment to stimulate interest, and upon doing that you have set a learning path into motion that becomes self-driven because that soundbite was so tasty- why do you think we call them bites?
Neil deGrasse Tyson – being the best he can be. Source – Full presentation

This quote isn’t really about brevity: there is huge value of starting at the end (or, perhaps Homerically in medias res) of a story.

While academic exposition begins with aims and hypotheses then progresses through to conclusions, any headline-writer will know to start with the hook:the stylish presentation of something wondrous – provoking curiosity. This curiosity can then be sated with information, the wondrous factoid, conundrum or sensory experience can be contextualised, built upon and explored.

I’ve already argued for the openness – or permeability – of the online resources museums create. Having openness here allows people’s ‘learning paths’ to progress freely – it breaks down the hard boundaries between experts and non-experts. However, permeable resources are one thing, open production processes are a much bigger challenge. Not least psychologically – I’ve been writing this post in fits and starts for nearly four months – never quite ready to expose it before a basic sense of completeness.

It would be a major shift for a museum to simply ask its users/audience: what should we do next? Or even, to open up – in the germination stages of a project – the planning documents, meetings and musings of its various experts. Followed, by public, documenting of the precarious and pragmatic decisions that lead to funding, design and production. What museum, in today’s fragile cultural sector, would be mad enough to take on these risks?

We tend to expect a big launch, premiere or unveiling of any new – secretly created – project. These ingrained cultural patterns that are often unquestioned but the drama and delight they cause is real. There are genuine questions – as in the reflexiveness of open research processes – that need to be asked when trying this. If museums want to engage in new ways they need to be bold. Perhaps, despite the positive elements of old methods that will be lost, some experiments need to be made. The tensions between openness and production – stylish and substantial – need to be explored in practice. Who is going to take the plunge?

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