Open Review: "Shakespeare and New Media"

1. Institutions on the Internet

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 5 This essay focuses on the digital self-presentation of four major UK Shakespeare institutions. For three of them – the Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust – Shakespeare is central to their institutional identity. The fourth, the British Library, hosts the significant digital resource “Shakespeare in Quarto”. As well as representing different facets of the Shakespeare industry – theater, heritage, libraries – these four institutions usefully exemplify the mixed nature of the UK’s cultural economy. The RSC and British Library both receive public subsidy from the UK government, the former awarded £15.2m in 2008-9 via the arm’s-length funding distribution body Arts Council England and regional distribution body Advantage West Midlands, and the latter £106.9m directly from the government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport.[9] By contrast, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust are not publicly funded in the sense of receiving taxpayers’ money: established in the US philanthropic model by Sam Wanamaker, The Globe Trust supplements its box office revenue with the support of Friends, corporate sponsorship, trusts and foundations, as well as income from its exhibition and educational events. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust similarly relies on income from visitors, Friends and donations. Both address themselves directly to the purse strings of the public: visitors to the SBT website are urged that the charity “depends entirely upon the public for support”[10], and visitors to the Globe website that “Your support is vital to enable the Globe to grow and flourish”.[11] As such, the four institutions seem to represent the major division in the UK cultural economy between public subsidy and independent funding.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Despite their apparently contrasting support systems, there is considerable overlap in the mission and mode of operation of these organisations. The RSC is also a registered charity, and, like the Globe and SBT, makes prominent appeals to its visitors for support, as well as finding inventive ways to draw in commercial revenue through its gift shop and public events. Its mission statement reflects its nationally-endorsed status to promote Shakespeare as a public good: “The aim of the RSC is to keep modern audiences in touch with Shakespeare as our contemporary”.[12] But it does not have the monopoly on this sense of public service, which is also displayed by its unfunded counterparts. Founded in 1847 to purchase Shakespeare’s birthplace for the nation, the SBT is concerned with caring for “Shakespeare’s heritage” and “promoting Shakespeare across the world”. The Globe claims to embrace “the most democratic audience in the world”[13], and, in its appeal for funding, stresses that new donors would be supporting “one of the most prestigious and important arts and education centers in the country”.[14] Such positioning is not uncommon, according to Minister for Culture and Tourism, Margaret Hodge:

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I’ve seen it in other jobs I’ve had in Government, whether in education or social services for example. Entrepreneurial third sector organizations which are committed to public value but which don’t see themselves as part of a “command and control” public service monopoly.[15]

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Thus even non-publicly-funded organisations – perhaps all the more vehemently because they are not funded – present their Shakespeare work, and particularly their educational work, as a public good, while publicly-funded organisations also function as commercial enterprises. All of these Shakespeare organisations receive mixed sources of funding, balancing to different degrees the dual impulses of public support and market success.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Digital media is seen to have great potential to fulfil both these public and commercial remits. The UK government’s 2009 Digital Britain report envisages a bright future for culture when the nation’s television and radio provision is switched from analogue to digital in 2013 and, still further ahead, when every home in the country has a broadband internet connection. A number of prestigious cultural organisations are named in its vision for the digitally-enhanced future of public services:

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Public cultural institutions like the Tate, the Royal Opera House, the RSC, the Film Council and many other museums, libraries, archives and galleries around the country now reach a wider public online.[16]

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 4 Described as “public cultural institutions”, the digital offerings of the Tate, Royal Opera House and RSC are here absorbed, with the BBC, into a discourse of broadcasting, in which reaching a “wider public” means an amplification of the social good they are assumed to do (rather than a fragmentation of their work in a new age of many-to-many broadcast). At the same time, these cultural institutions might have something in common with the more commercial outlook of the “creative industries” described in another chapter of the report: independent businesses such as CGI, advertising, computer games, publishing and design, whose trade in ideas, knowledge and creative design makes them well placed for economic growth in a more digitized culture.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The use of new media by these Shakespeare organisations – namely, the digital, paratextual materials with which they present themselves in their websites – is thus inflected by the dual imperatives of broadcasting and marketing. For example, visitors to the RSC website can not only survey what’s on in the coming season, book tickets and browse the gift shop, but also engage with the company’s rehearsal and production process through actor blogs, interviews and backstage videos.[17] Visitors to the Globe can take a virtual tour of the building,[18] “adopt an actor”[19] and explore detailed records of past performances.[20] SBT site visitors can survey the range of upcoming talks and special events in the Shakespeare houses, and begin to investigate the archives of Shakespeare’s home town[21], while British Library website visitors can “turn the pages” of important books (a privilege first offered to them in the exhibition space of the library and now available online)[22], and, more recently, compare, side-by-side, and page-by-page, early quartos of Shakespeare’s plays.[23] Designed to promote the live work of the organisations, these websites also proffer virtual activities that seem to give privileged access to parts of the building previously off-limits to the general public – “backstage” or “behind the scenes” at the RSC, inside the rare books holdings of the British Library, and on the stage at the Globe.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 6 In presenting themselves online, the organisations appear to efface their own institutional walls. Visitors can enter and explore the institution without having to pay (if we overlook the cost of broadband connection and a laptop), find a parking space, or enrol on an undergraduate or postgraduate degree course. For those more familiar with the inside of such institutions, the internet can change the nature of their relationship: one literary scholar’s comment, in a roundtable discussion, that electronic resources enable one to conduct research “without even having to put your socks on”, is not simply a wry celebration of the luxuries of remote access, but an acknowledgement of the sense of informality with which public and academics alike are enabled, by new media, to engage with cultural organisations online. In 1975, cultural studies scholar John Clarke observed that cultural organisations such as galleries and museums still required one to enter them “seriously”. He insisted that their professionalizing role maintained the symbolic separation of art from social life, in a way he could not envisage being overcome.[24] In proffering unserious, online access to their organisations, the RSC and other companies symbolically reach across that separation and, in a profitably iconoclastic gesture, market a more intimate relationship with their high-status institution: from the blog enabling well-wishers to say to the crew on the first day of filming the BBC version of Greg Doran’s 2008 RSC production of Hamlet “Break a leg x” or “*hugs*”[25], to the peal of exhortations by the RSC to “Become a fan on facebook/ Upload photos on Flickr/ Follow us on Twitter/ Join us on Bebo/ Join us on Myspace”.[26]

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2 If “remediation” typically sees older forms being appropriated by newer ones, we here see a reverse process, whereby traditional institutions appropriate new media to promote themselves, and borrow the positive, associated qualities of immediacy, connectivity and relevance to a young demographic.[27] But in adopting new media’s capacity for growth and global reach, they also open themselves to some of the challenges that have already beset other creative industries. As the Digital Britain report notes:

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The increasingly easy and perfect digital replicability of content makes it harder to monetise creative rights (17)

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 The internet has the capacity to transform the printed word, and recorded music, into free content, making it difficult for the publisher, author, music label, or artist to recoup the financial value of their creative product. Anxieties about replicability also circle round Shakespeare organisations: according to a recent Arts Council survey of audience and artist perceptions of the effect of digital technology on the arts, concern was expressed for the “threat to the live” it posed.[28] This recalls a recurring modernist anxiety about the deleterious effects of new technologies of reproduction on culture, from Walter Benjamin’s lament for the “aura” of the original artwork, to the Frankfurt school’s critique of the manipulative, mass reproduction of the “culture industry”.[29] “Threat to the live” also invokes a larger moral panic about the anti-social, alienating nature of digital culture, which, for all its claims to create online communities and social networks, is often seen to lack the real “focal things” – a neighbourhood hockey ground, a seminar table, a theater – around which communities organize themselves.[30]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 4 As has been observed, however, “any new technology will invariably be invested with utopian or dystopian meanings”.[31] The negative rhetoric of mass reproduction, anti-social behaviour and networked dissent exists in ongoing tension with a more positive media script of “Technology as feminine, mass culture as enlightenment, interactivity as democratic … symbolic juxtapositions that promise to break down the boundaries between people and between places”. (169). While digital technology has significantly affected the way we purchase and own recorded music, and, increasingly, books, too, it is currently said to have a relatively limited physical effect on the ways people engage with traditional cultural organisations like theaters and galleries. The Arts Council’s survey of the current digital offer of their own, Regularly Funded Organisations declares that, for 94% of these organisations, their online presence is a (more or less sophisticated) marketing tool for the live experience of the theater, gallery or museum. In the 4% of organisations where their website stands up as a destination in its own right – say, mixing your own music at the Philharmonia Orchestra, or curating your own virtual exhibition at the Tate Gallery – it apparently tends to be “complementary” to, rather than stand in for, the live experience.[32] Furthermore, the Arts Council’s research suggests, access to the internet and engagement with culture are similarly stratified, so people who do not already engage with culture are apparently – for this kind of cultural institution at least – unlikely to be drawn to it for the first time by an institutionally-provided digital experience. It is said to be more likely to “enhance” the experience of those who already engage with culture.[33] At present, the digital content produced by the institutions appears (perhaps deliberately, because of the complex desire both to serve the public and to sell the live experience of theater or heritage) to retain its secondary status to their tangible or live work.[34]

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 4 The challenge facing these institutions is not so much to remonetize a product that the internet has turned into free content, as to recapture the cultural value that digital media has shifted outside their walls. The positive discourse of digital technology, inflected by the changing narratives of cultural value in the institution’s larger cultural context of business and public service – shifts the moment of value. The increasing tendency to locate value in the experience of the user means that, rather than being an intrinsic property of an object or event, it is supposedly created afresh in every cultural encounter, or even after the event, in what audiences or visitors go on to do with that experience. Having effaced their institutional walls, and embraced the language of user-generated creativity, how do the Shakespeare organisations claim for themselves the cultural value that they engender in others? The next part of the essay traces the changing narratives of cultural value in policy and business, suggests the scale of their implications for cultural organisations, and reveals the complex maneuvers by which these Shakespeare institutions celebrate their new role as facilitators of potential value, but also attempt to reinscribe user-generated cultural value within their institutional walls.

  • [9] See “Finance Director’s Report”, Royal Shakespeare Company Annual Report 2008-9, http://www.rsc.org.uk/downloads/pdfs/annualreport2009.pdf, 42; and “Trustee’s Annual Report 2008/9”, Annual Accounts 2008/9, http://www.bl.uk/about/annual/2008to2009/accounts.pdf, 40.
  • [10] “Supporting the SBT”, Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=43&Itemid=43)
  • [11] “Support Us”, Shakespeare’s Globe, http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/supportus/.
  • [12] “About the RSC”, Royal Shakespeare Company,
  • [13] Dominic Dromgoole, “2010 Theater Season”, Shakespeare’s Globe, http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/theater/annualtheaterseason/.
  • [14] Home page, Shakespeare’s Globe, http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/. In “About the Globe”, the website declares that the Globe’s mission is to “further the experience and international understanding of Shakespeare in performance”, Shakespeare’s Globe,http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/abouttheglobe/.
  • [15] Margaret Hodge, “Margaret Hodge’s speech to the Theatrical Management Association Winter Conference”, http://www.culture.gov.uk/reference_library/minister_speeches/2007.aspx.
  • [16] Department for Media, Culture and Sport and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Digital Britain Final Report, June 2009, http://www.culture.gov.uk/images/publications/digitalbritain-finalreport-jun09.pdf, 135.
  • [17] “Exploring Shakespeare”, Royal Shakespeare Company, http://www.rsc.org.uk/explore/.
  • [18] “Virtual Tour”, Shakespeare’s Globe, http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/virtualtour/.
  • [19] “Adopt an Actor”, Shakespeare’s Globe, http://www.globe-education.org/discovery-space/adopt-an-actor.
  • [20] “Globe Education: Research”, Shakespeare’s Globe, http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/globeeducation/research/.
  • [21] See choices available from home page, Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust, http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/.
  • [22] “Online Gallery: Turning the Pages”, British Library, http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/ttpbooks.html.
  • [23] “Treasures in Full: Shakespeare in Quarto”, British Library, http://www.bl.uk/treasures/shakespeare/homepage.html.
  • [24] John Clarke, “Framing the Arts: The Role of Cultural Institutions”, Stencilled occasional paper / University of Birmingham. Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies. General series ; SP No.32, Paper from Symposium on Sport and Leisure in Contemporary Society, Polytechnic of Central London, 11 January, 1975, 6.
  • [25] John Wyver, ““What hour now”?”, Illuminations: Essential Media about the Arts, http://www.illuminationsmedia.co.uk/blog/index.cfm?start=1&news_id=339.
  • [26] “16-25”, Royal Shakespeare Company, http://www.rsc.org.uk/content/6455.aspx.
  • [27] “…remediation operates in both directions: users of older media such as film and television can seek to appropriate and refashion digital graphics, just as digital graphics artists seek to refashion film and television”, Bolter and Grusin, 342.
  • [28] Synovate, “Consuming digital arts: understanding of and engagement with arts in the digital arena amongst the general public” (2009), http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/Consuming-digital-arts.pdf, 21-4. Arts Council England commissioned this research as part of a three year “digital opportunities” programme, which seeks to investigate “the impact of digital technology on how the public perceive, understand and engage with the arts”, “how digital technology is transforming art and artistic practice” and “the implications for content creation, distribution and ownership”. “Digital opportunities”, Arts Council England, http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/about-us/research/digital-opportunities/.
  • [29] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, translated by J. A. Underwood (London: Penguin, 2008); Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The culture industry: enlightenment as mass deception”, in Mass Communication and Society, ed. J. Curran, M. Gurevitch and J. Woollacott (London: Edward Arnold, 1977).
  • [30] See discussion of Albert Borgman, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) by Darin Barney, “The Vanishing Table, or, Community in a World That is No World”, in Community in the Digital Age: Philosophy and Practice, ed. Andrew Feenberg and Darin Barney (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 31-52.
  • [31] Janine Marchessault, “Learning the New Information Order”, in Capital Culture: A Reader on Modernist Legacies, State Institutions, and the Value(s) of Art ed. Jody Berland and Shelley Hornstein (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000), 169.
  • [32] MTM London, “Final Report: Arts Council England – Digital Content Snapshot” (15 May 2009), http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/downloads/MTM-snapshot.pdf, 14, 18. The report finds that “The majority of the RFO sites focus primarily on marketing a live arts experiences or service (88% of sites reviewed).”
  • [33] Synovate, “Consuming Digital Arts”, 33. “It is those who are most engaged in the arts already who are most likely to explore art online, as a complement to their existing artistic pursuits. The digital space is very unlikely to ‘convert’ those who are currently uninterested in the arts.” This finding is based on online and face-to-face discussions with 90 respondents from three attitudinal groups among the general public: “leading edge” digital technology users, “digital enthusiasts” and “arts enthusiasts”.
  • [34] MTM note, for example, the limited visibility of more interactive digital materials on the RFO’s websites: to access the RSC’s backstage videos the visitor to the website must click on the “Education” link, then the “Exploring Shakespeare” link, just to reach the relevant section, and then make two further clicks to watch the video; the videos are difficult to stumble across on a Google search. (23)
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    Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/ShakespeareQuarterly_NewMedia/rumbold-from-access-to-creativity/1-institutions-on-the-internet/