What type of media is a museum? Interview with Twyla Gibson

For the past year, I have been wondering about Marshall McLuhan’s ideas of “hot” and “cool” media, and how they might apply to museums. Marshall McLuhan was an influential voice in media theory, and thought a great deal about popular culture, and how the dominant media shapes the way we think. (If you aren’t familiar with McLuhan’s work, perhaps you will recall him from this scene from Annie Hall.)

I started thinking about McLuhan’s ideas when pondering the current interest in storytelling in museums, and grew further interested when working on my post, “Why are children’s museums museums?” In looking at work about McLuhan on line, I encountered the work of Twyla Gibson, and called her to ask if she would be willing to be interviewed for this blog. She graciously said yes.

Twyla Gibson is Assistant Professor of Information Science, University of Missouri. She is also a founding editor of the journal MediaTropes. Professor Gibson specializes in the history and philosophy of information, media, and communication. 

twyla gibson

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in “high definition.” High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, “high definition.” A cartoon is “low definition,” simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium of low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience. Naturally, therefore, a hot medium like radio has very different effects on the user from a cool medium like the telephone…

-Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1965


Marshall McLuhan wrote about what he called “hot” and “cool” media. As the quote above shows, he identified radio as hot and a speech as cool, photographs as hot and telephones as cool. What does this mean?

A rough rule of thumb in distinguishing hot from cool media is the amount of data or information offered. With hot media, there is not a lot of information to fill in. Radio and movies are examples of this. A cool medium is one in which you must fill in or complete a lot of information. It involves what McLuhan called participation, but we would probably call interaction.

The concept of hot and cool has to do with the amount of data or information. And we are in the age of big data. In a cool — or low definition – medium, data must be filled in and completed by observers. This requires a high participation level from audience members. A hot medium expands on a single sense and involves little participation – just walking by and observing.

In museums, we like to offer more cool media, allowing people to interact with a display or a concept. Leave it to them to fill in the dots, rather than passively observing. With a hot medium, there is not a lot left for the observer to do.

Is cool media better than hot media?

The terms hot and cool just describe the amount of data the viewer has to supply. McLuhan used the terms in ways that imply both are good. For example, we could say, “That song is really hot,” or “that song is really cool.”

Would you argue that one type of media is better than the other when it comes to education?

In terms of educational experience, in the past we have provided people with a hot medium. Let’s use the example of the gallery label, which tells people what they are seeing when they look at an object, and explains to them what is in front of them and why it is important and why it is the way it is.

Early in the 20th century – the era of the rise of many of the museums in the United States – “high art” was commandeered by the university, and museums were left with an educative function. This led to the creation of labels intended for a very limited audience. One of the debates in museums right now is the educative function of the label, through which the museum asserts its authority to determine the meaning of the object, as opposed to leaving that meaning-making function to the interpretive action of the viewers.

Now the challenge for museums is to provide positive experiences to people from all walks of life. And the only way to do that is if the museum does not take advantage of its position to tell the viewer what it is they need to know about the object, but instead helping the viewer come to terms with the object, and figure out how to find information for themselves.

New technologies offer novel ways to create cool media experiences. Visitors might be guided by mobile apps that tell the history or background of an object, but in a way that it doesn’t foreclose on the viewer’s own perspective. Instead, this history should stoke creative juices and allow the visitor to make meaning. In future I think we’ll be seeing more experiential displays interwoven with standard museum exhibits.

For example, museums might give you a hand-held recorder or a cell phone. If you’re a professor you can look at an object and learn about its history. If you’re a school child you might hear things interesting to a child your age. In this way museums can provide information that helps viewers make their own meaning, not just passively accepting the meaning that the museum has prescribed through its institutional authority.

Isn’t that still prescriptive? Aren’t museums still telling people what to think – they are just offering some people one label, and others, a different label?

That’s the tension that interpretation always involves. How much of the understanding of the observer is limited by the object and what’s around it, and how much of it is there for them to take what they will?

I saw an exhibition in Australia about life “down under” in the 1950s, and this exhibit found a way to short circuit the museum’s authority to determine meaning. The exhibit presented an entire array of objects from the 1950s that contextualized individual objects in the display by providing a context that showed what was going on in the entire culture at that time. As a visitor, you got a sense of how a painting was a reflection of the entire culture during that time period, and how it was innovative in the context of a total environment. This “cool media” approach leaves a lot more to observers, allowing them to start to make connections for themselves.

That’s ironic – by giving more information the museum left interpretation more open?

The more you know the more you know you don’t know.

All of this is about is communication, and how the museum is a medium of communication. McLuhan’s method was to look for ways to examine culture. He taught us to observe any book or text or television program as reflections of that culture and context, and not isolated things. This is the approach that allowed him to make so many prescient comments – comments which still seem relevant 70 years later. He had a way of examining a medium as the ground that allows the content to figure forth. In this way, the museum is a medium or ground that makes the objects or contents the figure. McLuhan looked at changes from print to electronic media in relation to revolutionary stages in history for these insights.

Museums relate types of data and messages. We attempt to live up to museum’s mandate to educate the public.

embroidery mcluhan

Another famous McLuhan quote. Picture from flickr, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/lesleyhyphenanne/11611559976/

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