A Conceptual Framework for Analysing Social Systems surrounding Korean National Museums in the Digital Age
Juhee Park, Museum Studies, University College London, UK
Changes in museum practice and the ways in which people can experience museums in the digital age have increasingly become key topics in discussions about both museum practice and museum theory. Although employing digital technology in museums is a recent phenomenon, museums, as social institutions, have always been strongly influenced by socio-economic, cultural and technological changes. In the case of South Korea, in particular, digital culture plays an important role since S. Korea is a technologically advanced country, especially with regards to the development of innovative digital devices and the degree to which digital technologies have been embedded in daily life. In the museum context, digital technology has had a profound influence on the ways in which S. Korean museums manage their collections, develop their websites and adopt innovative media for eye-catching exhibition tools. Yet, the same does not appear to be true for interpretation, learning and, in general, the way in which museums interact with their visitors, particularly in view of the discussion related to the ‘new museology’. The aim of this research is to investigate the degree to which S. Korean museums and related social systems have changed and interconnected with each stakeholder in the digital age. This paper will present a conceptual framework based on activity theory (Nardi, 1996), which could be used in order to link and explain the relationship between structure and agency in the museums. Moreover, it will address the potential stakeholders who influence decision-making in museums, including government bodies, museum professional bodies, academic departments, museum practitioners and the public.
Keywords: Korean museums, digital age, social system, activity theory
The notion of ‘museum’ has changed in its history, reflecting changes in society. Hooper-Greenhill argues that, ‘museums have always had to modify how they worked, and what they did, according to the context, the plays of power, and the social, economic, and political imperatives that surrounded them’ (1992, p.1). Therefore, in order to understand museums in the contemporary age and in a society, it is necessary to consider the societal context and culture within which museums are located.
We are now living in the digital culture. The ‘digital technology’ changes our behaviours and daily lives. It has especially affected the way in which we communicate with others. For instance, we are connected with other people through network systems, such as using a personal computer, smartphone, tablet and IoT (Internet of Things). In fact, the impact of technology development on our daily lives has been an important topic in sociological discourse. The relationship between technology development and social changes generally is referred to as ‘technological determinisms’ or ‘a technology as socially constructed artefact’. There are continuous debates about this. The obvious thing is, however, that they are strongly interconnected with each other, and our lives are changing with innovative technology.
As a result, museums in the digital culture have also changed in terms of museum practice, as well as the way in which museums are perceived and theorised. We can find various aspects of museum practice where digital technology has been embraced, from emerging museum websites in the mid-1990s to launching museum apps nowadays. The employment of automation technology in museums in North America and the UK has allowed museum practitioners to manage collections since the early 1960s (Jones-Garmil, 1997), while more recently, digital technology has provided more opportunities for visitors and the public to enrich their museum experience.
In the case of South Korea (S.Korea), although it is a technologically enhanced country, there is a big gap between using digital technology in daily life and employing the technology in museums, especially the national museums on which I am focusing, for facilitating museum visitors’ experience. This paradox drives me to investigate the degree to which museums and related social systems have changed and interconnected with each stakeholder in the digital age.
Three research questions will be discussed in the research: (1) Who are stakeholders and what are their roles in promoting the use of digital technology in museums in order to facilitate museums’ visiting experience? (2) How have the stakeholders and related policies impacted museum practices in digital culture? (3) How have existing practice and museums’ internal changes affected museum practices regarding digital experience?
This paper, as a part of my research, will offer a conceptual framework based on activity theory (Nardi, 1996) in order to link and explain the relationship of structure and agency in the museum. It will then present possible stakeholders within that framework who could have influenced the apparent lack of focus on the digitally facilitated visitor experience in S. Korean national museums. This research is ongoing project. Thus as a conclusion, future progress and further issues will be discussed.
2. General Understanding of Korean Digital Society and National Museums
2.1. Digital Korea
Generally, digital technology is widely employed in the daily life of S. Koreans. S. Korea is one of the leading countries in digital technology, producing pioneering digital devices. Additionally, according to the report by USA-based Strategy Analytics (Yonhap news, 2013), S. Korea ranked first in global smartphone penetration in 2012 by a recorded 67.6 percent. S. Korea’s smartphone user rate is four times higher than that of the average global rate of smartphone ownership, which recorded 14.8 percent in the report. Moreover, the research paper Measuring the Information Society 2013, published by the International Telecommunication Union, reports that 99.6 percent of the total youth in S. Korea are digital native,. and 25.5 percent of adolescents are addicted to smartphones (MSIP, 2014). Overall, using digital technology, especially smartphones, is likely to be very much part of the daily life of young S. Korean adults, and an essential part of their identity (or what it means to grow up in S. Korea nowadays).
2.2. Korean National Museums
S. Korea’s central government is strongly related to national museums, especially in terms of annual budget and museum policy. National museums in S. Korea are exclusively funded by the government, and are not permitted to be supported by private companies under the current law. Although nowadays museums tend to find alternative ways for donations (Kim, 2007), the bulk of their funding comes from the government. Therefore, when they set up an annual plan, the government can strongly influence decision-making.
Moreover, Yang (2002) points out that the fundamental problem of S. Korean museum policy is that according to the Museums Act of 1984, building modern museums was engendered by the government’s strong political will, in the form of a nationalist desire to preserve national cultural heritage and improve museums to meet the standards of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) as a developed country. Therefore, the museum policy is not for a civic society, from a bottom up approach, but a top down approach (Ibid.). Therefore, there are currently lots of discussions about S. Korean museum policies for further effective management (Yang, 2009; Yoon, 2012).
In summary, the formation and management of Korean national museums seems to closely relate to the government’s intended plans, rather than to other stakeholders. Before discussing in particular the Korean cases in the digital age, the following section will further explore the relationship between museums and society/government power. It will provide a more general concept of the relationship by means of a literature review. It will then lead to building a conceptual framework for analysing social systems surrounding S. Korean national museums in the digital age.
3. Museums and the Social System
It can be understood that the relationship between museums and the social system functions in two approaches: museums as a micro agency in a macro society, or museums as independent actors in a society. The discussion on the relationship of structure and agency is long-standing in the field of museum studies literature (Gray, 2012) as well as traditional sociology discourse (Swingewood, 1999).
3.1. Passive Museums in a Big Society
Museums, as one of agencies in a structured society, have been influenced by various factors, such as politics, cultural policies, economics, and mainstream culture. Because all the work of museums is done by humans, the formation of museums cannot be explained without the culture within the society where the humans are included (Bennett, 1995). Therefore the point of view from which museums are structured, and are a kind of reflection of our society, has been widely discussed and has led to critical theory about modernity in museums (Fyfe, 2006).
In terms of national and local authority museums, they are more related to the planned directions of government policies, and in some ways they are controlled and regulated by the government (West and Smith, 2005; Newman, 2013). Because the government has developed the standard of evaluating museums, the value of museums and the works of museums are strongly related to government policy and power. Although these findings are based on the UK cases, the circumstance of Korean national museums seems to be similar, as mentioned in the above section.
3.2. Active Museums in a Society
On the other hand, although museums have been influenced by various external factors and seem to be passive social agencies of social control, museums are developing in their context by interacting with and disputing other actors. As Lavine and Karp commented (1990), museums ‘are never just spaces for the playing out of wider social relationship; a museum is a process as well as a structure, it is a creative agency as well as a “contested terrain.”’ If we only considered museums as passive agencies, it would be overly simple and could limit the value and role of museums in society. Moreover, as Mouzelis (1991) argues, museums are not micro organisations in a macro world but macro actors. The performances and decisions of museums have impacted on society and individuals through space and time. Museums are actively producing cultural meaning. Fyfe (1996) also argued that museums can be active actors producing cultural meaning against the predominant social order, despite the relationship of cultural interdependence.
In order to actively perform in independent ways, it is essential for museums and museum practitioners to make certain their roles and purposes in society. When they achieve their goals based on these roles, they can impact much more on society and on individual members of the public. For this, museum practitioners should also continuously develop their ability and potential, and voice their opinions to society.
3.3. Alternative Approach
The two approaches above, however, seem to have limitations in linking and understanding museums in the macro and micro worlds at the same time, because museums and their social systems are more likely to interconnect with each other in complicated ways. With regard to this, especially in museum studies literature, Gray (2012) suggests macro-, meso- and micro-level structural constraints in order to present government policy settings and to identify how these play out within the museum and galleries sector in the UK.
The most interesting finding of his research, related to my research, is that the degree to which we need to consider the influence of government policy on the work of museums is different depending on the museum practitioners’ functional/occupational roles, such as manager, curator and educator. This could give new insight into understanding the attitude and activity of different occupational museum practitioners regarding museum policy about embracing digital technology.
In summary, it is necessary to investigate governments’ museum policies and societal culture in order to understand a point of view of museums in a macro society. Similarly, it is also essential to investigate museum practitioners’ personal context and efforts in order to understand the point of view of museums as an active actor. Additionally, the function/occupation of museum practitioners should be considered in order to understand their contexts. As a result, in the next section, I will explore a postmodern sociological theory, activity theory, which provides an explanation to link social structure and agency. It will then lead a possible conceptual framework of my research.
4. A Conceptual Framework: Activity theory
As museums are in between structure and agency, the most suitable sociological theories for my research, which investigates the relationship amongst various stakeholders of museums in the digital age, are postmodern sociological theories that attempt to link the macro and micro worlds, rather than the presupposed dichotomies point of view from classical social theory. Thus in this section, I will explain activity theory as a conceptual framework. I will then explain the reasons why it is suitable for the research and how it can be applied to it.
4.1. Activity theory
Activity theory is a philosophical and cross-disciplinary framework that aims to examine the actions of people on both an individual and social level at the same time (Kuutti, 1996; Nardi, 1996). It suggests that activity should be understood through understanding the role of artefacts in everyday existence. Because the theory derives from the work of Vygotsky (1978), a Soviet cultural-historical psychology, as in Vygotsky’s argument, it maintains that the mind emerges through interaction with the environment.
The aim of activity theory is to understand the unity of consciousness and activity (Nardi, 1996). While cognitive science, a study for understanding the human mind, has focused more on mental representation and understanding how our brains work, activity theory extends this as related to artefacts such as tools and symbol systems (e.g. instruments, signs, procedures, machines, methods, laws, forms of work organisation) as one component of the social matrix (Ibid.). Thus, in activity theory, consciousness refers to a wider activity system and has dynamic features. Also, the changes of activity are directly related to the material and social conditions in a person’s current situation (Ibid.).
In summary, through activity theory, it is possible for a researcher to investigate and understand the activity of an individual regarding his/her personal and social level at the same time. Moreover, highlighting the importance of tools, it allows the researcher to ascertain the significant role of the tools that an individual actor (the Subject in activity theory) chooses in order to achieve his/her goals (Outcome). Thus, applying activity theory in my research, it is possible to explore how and why museums/museum practitioners employ digital technology (Tools) and which stakeholders (Community) in a society impact on this.
4.2. A framework adopted from activity theory
This section will explain how activity theory can be applied to my research as a conceptual framework. It will provide the definition/criteria of components as well as the way in which it is employed in my research to investigate social systems surrounding Korean national museums, and their workers.
In activity theory each activity consists of interacting components and their relationships to one another: subject, object, tools, community, rules, division of labour, and outcomes. The relationship among components can be visualized as an activity triangle, as seen in Figure 1. This figure (framework) is adopted from Engestrom (1999) and is employed to describe my research. Connection lines in the figure show a possible interaction between all of the components.
An activity, the basic unit of analysis in the theory, is the minimal meaningful context for understanding individual actions (Kuutti, 1996; Nardi, 1996; Sam, 2012), as opposed to a one-time single action. For example, the work of a museum employing digital technology can be an activity. The ‘Subject’ in the activity is the primary agent or agents. So in my research the subject would be museum practitioners/museums. Considering the subject as one of the components of activity, the personal contexts/attitude/history of museum practitioners can be aligned with others at the same level. The ‘Object’ is the motive of an activity. In my research, it could vary according to the aims/agendas of museums and of each programme/project, for example, engaging visitors to discover museum collections or encouraging visitors to express their creativity via programmes. The ‘Tools’ are artefacts which mediate the relation between subject and object. The subject uses the tools to interact with the object. These tools can be physical, like computer and smartphone; they also may be mental, like concepts and knowledge. The ‘Community’ is the large environment and people who have and share common objects, for example, government bodies relating to museums, museum professional communities, museum studies academic discourse, or the public. The ‘Rules’ influence the interactions among subjects, tools, community, and objects. They can be explicit, such as laws and policies related to museums, and contracts with suppliers, or implicit, such as an organisational culture or norm. The ‘Division of Labour’ describes how subjects share or distribute work, either amongst themselves or with the rest of the community. So different departments in a museum may have different roles regarding employing digital technology for facilitating visitor experience, and each stakeholder plays a different role, such as supervising, advising or (re)training. The ‘Outcome’, in this case the ultimate goal of the museum, as a cultural, educational and social institution, is the desired result from the object. It could be different depending on the philosophy of museum management, of course. One could pursue more academic aspects of authentic museums, such as ‘old museology’. Another could aim for more multiple/open approaches, like ‘new museology’ (Vergo, 1989; Weil, 1990; Hein, 1998; Hooper-Grennshill, 1999; Simon, 2010).
In summary, the activity theory framework is applied in order to understand the holistic context in which different communities (government bodies, museum professional bodies, academic discourse and the public) impact on museums and fulfil their roles when a museum practitioner decides/plans/manages a digital experience. Activity theory also allows me to analyse museum practitioners’ personal histories, like academic background, or personal understanding/attitude towards digital technology as one of factors that can impact on digital experience in museums.
Based on this framework, the next section will explore the circumstance of S. Korean national museums in the digital age. In particular, it will explain possible reasons why the museums are reluctant to embrace digital technology in order to facilitate visitor experience. Significant current changes and issues also will be discussed.
5. Possible Stakeholders of S. Korean National Museums in the Digital Age: current status and issues
The activity of museums/museum practitioners may result from interaction amongst diverse stakeholders. In terms of embracing digital technology in museums, stakeholders (the subjects and community in the framework above) could strongly force, not fully support, or even disrupt this. This section will briefly investigate some possible reasons why S. Korean national museums have hesitated to employ digital technology in much more various ways, even though the daily lives of S. Koreans are fully connected to the digital. It will also deal with the rules and roles (division of labour in the framework above) of stakeholders, which they are expected to fulfil for the museums in the digital age.
5.1. S. Korean government bodies; directly involved in the museum practices
It cannot be denied that the museums have been associated with the power and intention of the government, since the formation of S. Korean major national museums is usually founded by the central government (Yang, 2002). In terms of policies relating to digital technology, noticeably after changing the president in 2013, S. Korean society has been encouraged to become more technologically innovative. The new government has announced a new policy document, namely the ‘Fifth Master Plan for National Informatisation’. In this document, the government puts great emphasis on linking Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to all aspects of society (or social life), from digital technology industry to education, culture, and even medical care.
As a result, from 2013 onwards we can find various applications of digital technologies in cultural fields for software and programmes as well as hardware and infrastructures. For instance, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST) made a fund in order to support new learning programmes using digital devices (tablets) in museums, and the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning (MSIP) has funded infrastructures of ‘Moohan Sangsang-sil’ in science museums, where families, adolescents and adult visitors can use various devices (e.g. 3D printers) for making their own creative objects.
On the whole, the government tends to intervene directly in the work of the national museums, and the government’s will seems to be a high priority in the museum decision-making process. This situation is also similar to the problem pointed out by Yang (2002), that of S. Korean museum policy as a top down approach. Therefore the impact of the government on museums regarding the usage of digital technology should be understood in a wider context and dealt with in detail in the next phases of research.
5.2. Museum Professional Communities and Academic Discourse: a relatively short history
In the case of S. Korea, the history of museum professional communities and the academic discourse of ‘museum studies’ is relatively short and has evolved differently from that of western countries. While museum studies began in museums in western counties over one hundred years ago, as training for their workers to achieve suitable skills (Teather, 1991), museum studies in S. Korea started from an academic department in the early 1990s. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, museum studies and similar departments, such as arts management, have increasingly been founded in many universities. Various related associations and societies have emerged at the same time.
However, there is rarely any discussion in the S. Korean context on the role of the museum professional community and museum studies as an academic field, and the degree to which they interact with each other. MacLeod (2001) suggests that museum practitioners, researchers and teachers of museum studies should become a member of interconnected ‘communities of practice’ in order to reflect the current issues on museums. In particular, museum practice in the digital age has rapidly changed as a result of employing innovative technology. Thus making common ground through conferences, seminars, and workshops held by the community could help museum practitioners to share their opinions and work experience (Teather, 1990), yet it seems to be hard to find these discussions or (re)training courses for S. Korean museums in the digital age.
5.3. Visitors (public): less powerful
With the change from ‘old’ to ‘new’ museology in western countries since the late 1980s, museums have concentrated on visitor studies as well as management in order to understand the expectations and needs of visitors (Harrision, 1993). Throughout this period, visitors, the general public rather than the elite, have been involved as a central part of museum work. In the case of S. Korean national museums, many of them work with focus groups who have special interest in the museums, in order to get the general public’s ideas about the work of museums.
However, reflecting the public’s opinion in the museum decision-making process is probably rare because of the limitation of time to complete projects, and of the bottom-up approach not generally accepted in bureaucratic organisational culture. This could be similar to the research findings by McCall and Gray (2014). They investigated the degree to which museums have changed into new museology in UK museums. In the point of view of new museology, visitors (public) are not only users but also essential stakeholders who should be considered and involved in the work of museums. Yet museum practices in the research showed fewer changes than museology literature might anticipate (McCall and Gray, 2014).
In particular, projects/programmes relating to digital technology are strongly recommended to reflect the voice and expectation of visitors. Although digital technology can be a powerful tool to encourage and connect visitors to museums, this is only possible when it suits the needs of visitors. In this context, visitors to S. Korean museums seem to have less power to speak their voice than other stakeholders.
We are living in a digital culture. The S. Korean government has pushed for the use of ICT through strict policies in many ways. Indeed, the public has a high level of digital literacy. In terms of the S. Korean national museum context, however, there is a big gap in embracing digital technology in meaningful ways. This paradox can be understood as analysing the social systems surrounding the museums. As the first phase of this, a conceptual framework adopted from activity theory was developed in this paper. Based on this, the possible stakeholders related to this paradox were suggested.
The next phase of this research is to collect data, mainly qualitative. Through this, other stakeholders, for instance individual museum practitioners as active actors, and the digital industry as a supplier, will be discussed in detail. Each museum’s organisational culture could also be an essential component to be analysed, as the rules by which the stakeholders are influenced. Interviews with different stakeholders will be conducted while reviewing and analysing relevant secondary sources (such as museum policies, white papers, archival material, digital resource development briefs, and so on). Finally, this research is expected to contribute to providing holistic contexts for understanding the work of museums in a digital S. Korean society.
 In this report, ‘digital native’ is defined as people aged 15-24, who have used the internet for at least five years.
 For further reference, we have 33 national museums, 365 local authority museums, 411 private museums and 102 university museums in S. Korea (A Review Paper of Cultural Infrastructure, 2013, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism). Not included are science museums belonging to other Ministries.
 ‘The First Master Plan for National Informatisation’ was started in 1996, according to the ‘Framework Act on Informatisation Promotion’ in 1995.
 The funding project ‘Museums on the Road’ is basically for small museums, and the original purpose is to encourage children and adolescents to take an interest in history and the humanities via creative programmes that connect the museum experience to the national curriculum. Generally, almost all programmes are for individual visitors rather than for groups, and the digital programme is only a part of the project. http://museumonroad.org/ (in Korean)
 This project is organised by the Korea Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity, and is in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, MCST, MSIP, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MTIE), the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO) and Korea Post. The ‘Moohan Sangsang-sil’ will be extended over 200 places across the nation by 2017. http://www.ideaall.net (in Korean)
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