Subverting the Archive

After a Spring Break hiatus, edwired is back.

A recent story in the Washington Post by Linda Hales (March 11 edition. I’d post the link but their archive search page isn’t working) detailed the plans by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum to turn every web visitor into their own curator. Once the site goes up for public use (October is the expected launch), visitors will be able to tag anything they find online and create their own personal online museum. Because these tags will be public, as is the case with Flickr or, visitors will be able to wander through the virtual museums of others with similar interests (or at least with similar tagging).

As Hales points out in the story, thish is a risky strategy for the “traditional museum autocracy” because it will require them to let democracy into their world. When visitors are creating their own exhibitions, adding content, and forming communities around that content, what role does the institution play as the keeper of the cultural keys?

Now, what institution can we think of that is even more staid than museums? Archives anyone?

Imagine a day when the National Archives or the Library of Congress starts to allow visitors to tag their online repositories. Then we’ll see what the archive really looks like to the user–as opposed to the archivist. Given the growing ubiquity of tagging, I think that day is not too far off.

The teaching implications of tagging are enormous. If we allow our students to begin assigning their own significance to the evidence we introduce them to, I think we’ll find that they make meaning from this evidence in ways that we couldn’t imagine. Of course, this means allowing them to make their own meaning from the past, something that many members of our conservative and fussy tribe will recoil from. But just as many, will see it as a marvelous chance to find out what our students can do with the evidence we give them.

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