Diffused Museums: Networked, Augmented, and Self-Organized Collections

This chapter appears in The International Handbooks of Museum Studies (Wiley, 2015). It can be downloaded from Wiley’s website. It was co-authored with Jon Ippolito.


While vernacular and variable museums may share the idea that curation is not the sole right of museum‐appointed staff, they still maintain that it is an individual that is responsible for curating. Pinterest boards are individual collections created when a user plucks images from the larger stream of content flowing through the system. The Variable Museum’s artifacts and sets are chosen by whoever is staging an iteration of the piece. The strength of both models is that the end user is given the ultimate responsibility to remix inputs and customize his experience, but in neither system is that experience shared with more than a few virtual or physical friends.

Other networked museums are built around community curation, where not only do the members of the community have input on what work is featured, but the work itself dictates its own curation. This is often the case when the work has a functional aspect as well as an experiential side, as in the case of video game archives. While large brick‐and‐mortar museums like MoMA and Stanford have begun to collect games in the 2010s, game communities have been curating a variety of game experiences on the web since its inception. Unlike institutional curators or even artist‐curators, these game communities have been truly group‐based mechanisms for determining significance and quality for much of their existence.

The Sid Meier’s Civilization line of games is widely acknowledged as one of the most significant game franchises ever made and has a correspondingly large community of fans (Adams, Butts, and Onyett 2007). In 2014 the largest fan site is the Civilization Fanatics Center with over 60,000 active contributors discussing the franchise. In addition to discussing the games, though, this community has been creating game mods – add-ons that alter the game experience – since Sid Meier’s Civilization II was released in 1996. Civilization Fanatics Center lists almost 19,000 mods, utilities, and content packs spanning the seven games it follows, with well over 12 million downloads of those files.

Archiving 19,000 files on any given subject is not a particularly unique accomplishment for a website. These mods are not only archived, though; they have been created and curated continuously through years of changing game platforms and player expectations. This Darwinian mode of curation rewards mods that provide the most unique, fun, or satisfying gameplay experience as judged by the community itself. Individual creators are responsible for many of the files, but the most visible mods are maintained by stewards more than coders. One mod, titled Fall from Heaven, has almost 300,000 posts discussing what should be in, what should be out, and even collections of secondary mods that alter its alterations to the original game. The community has demonstrated that it is more than a mechanistic debugging tool by supporting unique gameplay experiences whether they are fully functional or not, working to get them to the level of playability, and then polish. The result is a diverse set of curated experiences that the entire community can download and share.

Under this model, the community of curators grants relevance to its host institution – in this case, Civilization Fanatics Center. Should the community decide that Civilization Fanatics Center is no longer suitable, they will simply move them- selves and their content to another host and declare it the new institution. The Civilization game community has done this several times already, with previously leading sites turned into virtual ghost towns in a matter of months. A curator at MoMA may find that freedom difficult to copy. The prestige that MoMA holds is based on its history and collection; it is shared with its curators as they come and go far more than the other way around.

The self‐organized museum can only thrive in certain kinds of environments, some of which are becoming increasingly threatened by encroaching commercial interests. Supporting communities are both the creators and consumers of a self‐ organized museum, but as networked communities have faced greater algorithmic moderation they have fractured and been distanced from collective creation. Facebook, Google, and other intermediary sites impose structures that older host software like bulletin boards or Usenet did not (Pariser 2011). The success of the self‐organized game museum has prompted game developers to create their own specialized community software which enforces rules empowering the company over the community. From Apple’s App Store to Valve’s Steam environment, attempts to monetize the community have instead separated it from its roots. It is instructive to see how these systems have damaged the communities they ostensibly support by enforcing assumptions that are either expedient to the development of their software or supportive of monetization over creative freedoms. Inherent in social networking era game communities is the idea that curated objects are atomic and that individuals create them. Unlike Fall from Heaven’s 300,000 posts of give‐and‐take discussion, community feedback about a mod on Steam is limited to a thumbs up or thumbs down and a brief comment (Valve Software 2012). As a result, Steam‐based mods are algorithmically ranked and displayed to users based on data so simple that they are not curated in any meaningful sense of the term. When the community lacks the tools to communicate, it cannot create or curate.