Dr Julian Hartley

Museums and the Digital Public Space: Researching digital engagement practice at the Whitworth Art Gallery

Since the 1990s, a trend in the UK museum sector for developing community partnerships has witnessed a ‘participatory drive’ that aims to embrace social diversity by engaging communities in the co-creation of exhibitions and other museum work. In this context, the Internet broadly, and social media in particular, are seen as complementary to museum processes of reciprocal exchange and public access. However, as this thesis stresses, treating the Internet and social media as complementary and convergent with the participatory drive in museums is assumptive and has been under-analysed, and its difficulties and complexities understated.

In this context, this practice-based research carefully unpicks and critically analyses naturalised assumptions about online resources and social media practices in museums by tracing the cultural history through which the participatory museum has developed and contrasting it with the much later sociology of the Internet. The participatory drive is seen to be mediated through society’s agencies for local governance, healthcare and education services, as well as neighbourhood groups and families. These structures act then as a bridge organising people in space and time. In turn, museums’ digital practices often assume similar social organisation in their approach towards public engagement. However, the distributed architecture of the Internet has the effect of compressing time with space, enabling group organisation and public spaces to bypass society’s structures and instead place the individual at the centre of a network of relationships that self-organises according to the social capital displayed in online behaviour. Accordingly, the thesis argues, there is an apparent mis-match between museums on the Web and the online public, which affects negatively public engagement online.

By bringing Bourdieu’s theories of social space and social capital into the realm of the Internet, drawing on cultural historical activity theory and reflecting on a research residency at the Whitworth Art Gallery, this thesis goes on to examine why museums find it challenging to engage with online publics. Its research practice aimed to ‘open’ the digital collections of the participating museum into the same time and space as the online public. This included triggering, following, documenting and critically reflecting upon processes, challenges and actions of digital engagement and the people involved in them. The thesis reflects on the research practice’s organisational and cultural challenges, which relate to the fact that it contradicted the museum’s existing departmental organisation and symbolic representation of public access and engagement. It goes on to argue that when digital practices of museums are attuned to the ecology and spatial structure of the online public, the outcomes are misrecognised as unrelated to museums’ core practices of social inclusivity. Instead, the argument continues, museums need to open up to emerging concepts of digital public space and publicness, in order for their digital practices to be relevant to online publics.


I'm completing a PhD in Museology, supervised by Dr Kostas Arvanitis (Centre for Museology) and Esme Ward (The Whitworth Art Gallery). My background is in digital engagement, arts Journalism and community based arts practice.  

Contact details

Email: julianharttley29@gmail.com