This week we read several pieces that addressed how new media is collected and presented online and its connection to memory. Sheila Brennan in “Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory” mentioned several benefits for museums for displaying collections online. She analyzed different museum websites and talked about how museums needed to improve their online presence by making their collections and exhibits more accessible and shareable. She quoted a participant tweet from the Museum Challenges conference,
“Collections are useless unless they are used.”
This simple statement really astonished me – why had I never thought of museum collections in that way before? Donors bring their things to museums for safekeeping but also because they hope that their items will make a greater contribution to knowledge. Like Brennan also discussed, museums, limited by physical space, display such a small fraction of their total collections, why not open the collections online to display more? Not only would this increase interest in their museum but their collections would help fill absences in the primary sources records, making researchers very happy.
Placing a whole museum’s collection online cannot be a simple task. Perhaps one answer to opening up collections online in a way that is a little less time-consuming and a bit more budget-friendly is having a museumbot! Steven Lubar introduced me to a new type of program in his article, “Museumbots: An Appreciation.” These museumbots, like @museumbot, @cooperhewittbot, @bklynmuseumbot, tweet random collection items. This gives viewers a chance to see objects that they may never see displayed in the museum. Lubar argues that the randomness of museumbots are what makes them interesting.
Museumbot or full online collection, items online cannot be pictures with a brief caption nor can they be stand-alone; they need context and interpretation. Brennan states in her article that,
Meaning is not inherent to an object, it is attributed in many different ways from its form to function. Steven M. Beckrow wrote in 1975 that ‘The idea of an artifact is the idea of culture.'”
Brennan’s suggestions for museums are certainly motivating. However, seeing a collection online does not inspire in me the same level of interest as it would if I were viewing that collection in person. We are in a society that is constantly connected to the greater world, and that is also what we demand out of our museums. This debate is touched upon by Tim Sherret in “Conversations with Collections.” Sherret believes that we do not think of our experiences online are not as authentic as those in the ‘real world.’ His stance is that the digital and physical world are different, but one is not inferior to the other. I disagree. This idea of authenticity calls to mind a concept written by David Glassberg in Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (2001). Glassberg argues that Americans are strongly connected to the idea of place and that when history is interpreted out of its physical context, it does not resonate as strongly. Successful historical interpretation connects viewers to history through powerful emotional connections. Glassberg determined from viewers’ responses that emotional impact is equated to a sense of reality – as if they were really there and experiencing that moment in history. Can this really be done successfully by digital history?
I believe digital history is an excellent way to generate initial interest and inspire the viewer to seek out history in the ‘real world.’ I am not saying that Sherret is arguing to replace history with digital history – in fact, he specifically states that digital history augments what we know and perhaps more importantly, can change how we think and see collections – it is about transformation. But isn’t transformed another way of saying unauthentic?
New media is changing the way we think and remember as a society. Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart, authors of Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory (2014), describe the connections between new media and social memory. Societies create frameworks to place experiences and use these informal or formal frameworks as ways to understand the past and present, and infer the future. New media is changing the types of objects that make up social memory as well as the means of social memory; we can record our past in a way that can be constantly updated and recreated at a rapid pace. Because of this, it is harder to determine what is ‘original,’ as Rinehart and Ippolito show through a case about preserving Toy Story. Making copies of a digital copy of Toy Story does not deteriorate the original, but instead it makes many ‘mother’ copies, which increases its chances of being preserved. But can we say any of these ‘mother’ copies are the original, even if they are identical? Clearly, new media, and therefore digital history, present new challenges to the ideas of authenticity and originality.