THATCamp and All That (3)

The third session of THATCamp that I attended today was on museums in the digital world [scroll down for earlier posts from camp]. The first part of the discussion was about how museums might change their relationship with the objects in their collections via digital media. I threw out the example of what might happen if a museum agreed to allow collectors to contribute digital versions of artifacts to the museum’s digital collection (under tightly controlled conditions). On the one hand, this sounds incredibly interesting, because it would allow the museum to substantially increase the size of its digital collection, and for substantially less money than would be required if the museum acquired the object itself (which it would then have to preserve forever).

But many museums recoil at the suggestion.

Why? Because many curators feel that they would lose control of the collections they supervise. And what would be to role of the museum if the objects were housed elsewhere?

This suggestion also exposes the very specific differences between museums on the one hand and libraries and archives on the other. Where libraries and archives exist to make as much of their collection as available as possible, museums (at least many museums) do not. Instead, they exist to preserve the objects first and to display them to the public second. And preservation is incredibly expensive, which is why museums want you to come through the front door (to pay admission, shop in the gift shop, and eat in the cafe). Which, I think, helps to explain why (at least in my opinion) that libraries and archives have done much more interesting things in the digital world than museums have.

Another interesting topic that bubbled up was opposition among some segment of the student population to the very idea of metadata. Several people said they had a lot of trouble getting students to actually enter metadata into a database–they just aren’t interested in the concept of metadata. They like/love tagging, but that’s no the same as the grunt work of metadata. How, then, might we teach them that metadata actually make their lives easier?

5 thoughts on “THATCamp and All That (3)

  1. Jeff K

    THATCamp sounds like it prompted some lively exchanges. Your assessment of museums’ uneven engagement with the digital world is, I think, on target but I’m not so sure about your diagnosis of the problem.
    It is useful to keep in mind that museums curate objects, not texts or data. Material objects need to be mediated if they are to be digitized, and this mediation is usually done by means of a photograph and some descriptive metadata. But unlike documents, digitizing objects doesn’t allow them to be analyzed in novel ways–at best, museum collections on-line are analogous to on-line card catalogs. Digitizing books, or at any rate texts, is an order of magnitude more useful, and more exciting, than digitizing material culture.
    There are exceptions to this, of course, such as DAACS, but on the whole, we haven’t figured out, yet, how to make digital copies of museum objects in a way that gets everybody from the scholars to the curators to the public excited, and renders them usefully computable.
    I do think you’re right, however, to propose collaborative digitization as a way to move things forward. As modest as a digital index to artifacts would be, as a project, it would be a marvelous resource. I’ve begun to work on an index of buildings as a way to start thinking about this problem.

  2. tkelly7 Post author

    Hi Jeff:

    I think the immediacy of the object is why museums aren’t going out of business any time soon. There is still no replacement for that thing you can see and sometimes touch right there. I always think of the T-Rex skeletons and a Van Gogh painting. You can see an animation of a T-Rex, or a scan of its bones, but none of that replaces standing on the floor of a museum and staring up at those teeth way up above your head. Similarly, I can probably see every single Van Gogh as a digital image, but nothing replaces being as close to the canvas as the alarm systems will allow and seeing the surface of the work.

    That said, I do think that there are lots of collaborative models that haven’t been full tested yet that will use digital media to facilitate new types of “museums” to develop in the coming decade.

  3. Jeff K

    Yes, absolutely. Collaboration is the key and the point of doing anything digitally, as far as I’m concerned.

    My sense of this is that the place to start is with larger museums working with smaller ones to help get their collections digitized, catalogued, and shared on-line. Plenty of small museums lack the expertise, money, etc., to scan or even catalog their collections but would welcome the chance to use a major institution’s digital infrastructure to get their house in order and on-line. The challenges, here, are organizational, not technical.

  4. Mark Tebeau

    Mills, I loved your thoughts on the museum taking in digital objects of individual collectors into its collections. It generated so many strange images in my mind, including whether the relationship between a donor of a digital object and the museum would be exclusive. Mostly, though, I am struck by the continued fetishization of the object in museums, as we discussed at THATCamp. There is a kind of sacrilization of the “real” going on in response to digital history. In some respects, this same sort of concern is being expressed about landscapes as well. I am not sure that I disagree that the physical universe–the artifact or landscape–are important. And, I think Jeff’s thoughts are right on about that–notably that we have not quite figure out how to render digital objects. But, I am not sure that we’ve done that completely well with print items either.

    Indeed, I am not sure that casting it is an either/or proposition as so many museums continue to do is quite right. For example, digital objects are different manifestations of the object, just as photographs are. They are part of its descriptive universe, not the entire universe.

    Also, overstating the sacred qualities of the object reinforces extant power relationships, between big and small institutions. The digital universe—especially with the increasing availability of open-source, free tools like Omeka—offers a way to break down the distinctions between large/small and well-funded/modestly resourced institutions by creating a more even playing field in terms of digital representation.

    Many of the same the same challenges that face museums in terms of digitization are also faced in studying three-dimensional landscapes, which many argue need to be experienced in order to be truly understood. But, I think that we can curate cities, much like we curate objects. Digital history can contribute to the process of reshaping landscape history–which has happened with our Cultural Gardens website. We’ve had thousands of visitors in the past year–probably more than the actual site–from over 70 countries, countless queries, contributions, and newly created links/conversations about the Gardens. None of that has happened in over twenty years, except among a small group of Clevelanders. We have not been able to keep up. My sense is that this has happened for lots of our colleagues studying landscape but also using the web creatively in museum contexts.

    I am not sure, though, that libraries/archives are out front in really digitizing objects, nor are their digital dilemmas really much different than those faced by museums. Books, paper, maps and so forth *are* three-dimensional objects in the same way that artifacts are. Both begged to be handled and touched. For example, when we digitize Sanborn maps we lose a sense of when/if they included “pasteovers”–those little features added (by literally gluing new building details on top of the original map) later that are visible because they are slightly raised. Likewise, even with photos and pages, physical details can be critical. Either we have forgotten this aspect of paper or over-stated the differences between books/paper and artifacts.

    Finally, I am not sure that I agree completely with Jeff’s solution that large institutions help small institutions with digitizing and cataloguing their collections. I work with lots of small institutions that fear being subsumed by the catalogues of large institutions. They want to retain their autonomy and often cannot afford the expensive cataloguing systems and/or procedures taken by large institutions (which frequently cannot keep up with their own catalogs.)

    I like the sentiment, though. But, it seems to me that more productive and helpful collaborations could be created by sharing preservation resources, storage, and exhibition space (both way more expensive than digital resource development). And, in fact, the large institutions might themselves need to get out of their reliance on expensive/inaccessible archival systems and adapt something more interactive—that dangerous “tagging” that our students prefer to serious metadata.

    Great conversation at THATCamp; great post; and discussion. Sorry to be so long-winded.

  5. Margie McLellan

    Not surprisingly, archives seem to sit in between libraries and museums in their balance of access and curatorial goals. In addition to academic/scholar type researchers, archives tend to serve local historians, genealogists, and other more public/independent researchers. Museums serve connoisseurs and collectors in addition to academic audiences but less directly engage around research with the public the way that archives do.

    Digital images of objects do not convey as much of the information researchers are looking for as digital representations of documents (as much as there is room to enhance this). Still, there are ways to share more about artifacts. Archaeologists seem to be experimenting in interesting ways with the relationship between artifacts and audiences. One argument that I have heard is that engaging the public with the artifacts, landscapes, and particularly the research process goes a long way to protecting sites and supporting research–that opening things up and sharing pays significant dividends. On the other hand, I know there are digs that are stay under the public radar for fear of too much and too destructive interest. Perhaps it is through engaging folks with the curatorial process that museums can do more to share their collections. Metadata and tags both have their place but perhaps using new tools to promote dialog and transparency will help local organizations maintain their identities while opening up their resources to their traditional audiences in new ways as well as to wider audiences.

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