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Now on exhibit, the blogger's view

Places where information oft flowed one way, museums have opened their doors to dialogue. But they tread carefully where facts are concerned.

July 30, 2006|David Ng | Special to The Times

"A painting in a museum hears more ridiculous opinions than anything else in the world," Edmond de Goncourt once quipped.

Too bad the 19th century French writer never experienced today's blog culture. If he had, he'd know that what transpires between you and a masterpiece doesn't have to stay at the whisper level anymore. Thanks to the appearance of museum-hosted blogs, many of them featuring visitor comment pages, you can proclaim your opinions, ridiculous and otherwise, to all of cyberspace.

As many as 60 museum blogs exist today and the number is growing, says Jim Spadaccini, a consultant at the design firm Ideum, which develops museum exhibitions and websites and from which Spadaccini runs MuseumBlogs.org, a directory of museum-related blogs.

Within this small community, blogging can assume many guises. Some museums have dedicated staff who collectively write the blog entries and review visitor comments. Others entrust their blog to one person -- an artist in residence or a curator -- who uses the site as an official diary or journal.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 06, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Museum blogs: An article about museum blogs last Sunday misspelled as Brian the first name of the Science Museum of Minnesota exhibition developer who manages its Science Buzz blog. His name is Bryan Kennedy.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Museum blogs: A Calendar article about museum blogs on July 30 misspelled the first name of the manager of the Science Museum of Minnesota's Science Buzz blog. His name is Bryan Kennedy, not Brian.

Whatever form they take, museum blogs provide a space where ideas and opinions can circulate, more or less openly. But for the museums hosting them, that very openness can prove problematic. Unlike personal blogs, where anything goes, museums must weigh institutional objectives, such as promoting new exhibitions, against the populist pressures of the blogosphere -- like being independent and snarky.

"Museums see themselves as experts, and blogs are almost the opposite of that. They're completely informal and unauthoritative," says Spadaccini.

As a result, museum blogs suffer from a kind of split-personality syndrome. Are they civic forums or glorified marketing tools? Should they humanize the museum or enforce an authoritative distance? Perhaps all of the above. For museums, walking the thin blog line often amounts to an improvised balancing act.

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Forums for debate

CONSIDER what happened at the Science Museum of Minnesota when Gunther von Hagens' controversial exhibition "Body Worlds," a display of more than 200 human cadavers and body parts, arrived in May. ("Body Worlds" was at the California Science Center in Exposition Park in 2004-05.) The museum's online staff invited the public to submit comments on its Science Buzz blog (www.smm.org/buzz/blog). With more than 100 posts to date, the open thread has become the longest in the blog's nearly two-year history.

Most of the posts are unquestionably favorable, ranging from gushing praise ("This exhibit was one of the best the science museum has put on!") to a fascinated revulsion ("Today I learned that inside, I am really, really ugly.").

But the comments that caused the most stir were the openly political reactions. "I wish to know how this is any different [than] prostitution," wrote one person. "In both situations people are selling a gift of god for worldly gain. And in both situations, another gains the use of your body."

Another angry visitor seized on Body World's inclusion of a pregnant woman and fetus: "This is PROOF that a baby is a baby from the earliest stages. Therefore, abortion is homicide. It's the killing of an innocent human being. You can tell from the exhibit."

The museum's decision to publish the contentious comments on its blog wasn't an easy one: "We knew some people would get worked up about the exhibit," says Brian Kennedy, an exhibition developer at the museum who also manages the Science Buzz blog. "And we knew we'd attract ideologues only interested in spewing their beliefs."

Kennedy says the purpose of the blog is to discuss scientific issues, not political ones. "But in the end, we decided that showcasing dissenters, even if they were off topic, would help foster discussion around scientific issues."

Last year, the museum found itself in a similarly heated situation, but in this instance, the rabble-rousers lost out. A Science Buzz post about the discovery of a Tyrannosaurus rex bone with fleshy tissue provoked hostile comments from creationists, who wrote in denying that dinosaurs ever existed. The attacks were vicious in tone and unscientific in content, according to Kennedy, who says he received several such responses a day for weeks.

This time, the museum decided unequivocally against publishing the contrarian comments. The deciding factor was a single line in the museum's official policy book: "To compromise the explanations of evolution or to permit unscientific alternative explanations into our galleries or our programs would misrepresent the principles of science."

Joe Imholte, a museum project leader who works on the Science Buzz blog, says he encourages positive and negative visitor comments. "You need both to have a meaningful discussion," he says. "But we usually hold off posting controversial comments until our team has discussed and researched them. It can be tricky. By putting them on our blog, it means we've taken some kind of responsibility for them."

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Keeping a careful balance

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