Authenticity and Useful/less Collections

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?

Black and white photo of Mount Rushmore after completion.

Viewing a picture of Mount Rushmore and reading about how it was constructed will never create the same level of emotional impact, in my opinion, as seeing Mount Rushmore in person.  Photo from US National Park Service.

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.

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10 thoughts on “Authenticity and Useful/less Collections

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. You do an excellent job seamlessly tying in the readings. Dr. Franz would be proud!

    Your post is actually very similar to mine. I particularly connected with your post in the section where you talk about how you have never thought of museum collections as being “useless unless they are used.” I had the same reaction to Brennan’s piece. I reflected on some of my experience in the Collections Department at the National Postal Museum (I am proud to see that it made it on her list of successful digitized collections haha). However, I never thought of collections in this way either. In all honesty, many institutions I have worked for have an obscene amount of excess objects within the collections and collections in general. Most of the time these collections have not been used in years, if they have even been used at all. So, how exactly are they useful?

    I think that digitizing collections would exponentially create interest, no matter how rudimentary, in the museum, enable the institution to expand, and even reach a broader audience. All of these aspects I am sure are represented in their mission statement as well.


    • Thank you, please tell Dr. Franz!!

      Before this course, I hadn’t thought of collections as useless if not being used. I thought the collections in storage were serving a purpose for researchers. Digitizing the collections, or at least having summarized collections lists available to the public would make it easier for researchers to know what institutions to consult for their work. Since I started interning at National Museum of Natural History, I believe that even if all the collections were digitized, researchers want to see the objects in-person, no matter if those researchers are scientists, historians, etc. For institutions with collections so large, to digitize would be nearly impossible, I think the solution could be to have detailed summaries of the different collections in the museum. However, for security reasons (I assume) museums do not always want it publicly known what is in their collections. In the end, there is no easy and fast way to solve this problem!


  2. giamje01

    Thanks for a provocative post, Alexandra, I think you’ve touched on some key issues and debates. Your discussion of authenticity reminded me of last week’s conversation, especially Kate Theimer’s argument that so-called “digital archives” should really be called “digital history representations,” which reflects this idea that there is only one true, original, very first version – a digitized version is a representation of that original. Your reference to Glassberg is also a point well made. I do think, though, that there might be room for new/different kinds of emotional connections that can be made with an object or work of art when you are able to interact with it and make it your own. This is perhaps most often the case with born digital works, but I have also seen some interesting instances where museums are crowd sourcing certain digital efforts, asking the public to make real contributions to a digital collection. The V&A, for instance, asks website visitors to sort through several photos of an object uploaded in haste, and to select the best view, suggest crops, etc, essentially asking them to interact with the collection in a way that can only be done online. I hope I’m making sense and not just babbling… I think what I’m getting at is that maybe there are different kinds of authentic experiences, each as valid as the next? I’m not sure where I stand on this, just wanted to raise the question.


    • Hi Jen,

      I can never read or hear the world “provocative” without thinking of Freeman Tilden!!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on born-digital experiences. How we experience the world is changing, and with that, how we make emotional connections to the world around us is changing, too. Like you, I am not sure how I feel about authenticity and digital materials. I think the debate becomes more complicated when it involves our ideas of authenticity and born-digital materials, like digital art works. At this point, I think I prefer the physical object or location over a digital replication. To interact with images online, like your example of the V&A, may inspire in the user some type of connection to the item. I would argue that both types of connections – to the physical and to the digital – are valid, but different, and therefore difficult to compare. Is it even fair to compare the two? I am not sure…and like you, I just wanted to open the topic up for more debate.


  3. I certainly agree with the notion that all museums need to improve their online visibility to make them more accessible and shareable, but I am less sure about the idea that “collections are useless unless they are used.” On the one hand, placing collections on display allows for a wider public awareness of particular collections, and perhaps adds value to furthering a kind of social memory Ippolito and Rinehart describe. However, The Smithsonian America Art Museum, for example, likely includes thousands of works that simply cannot be on display due to space limitations, but even sitting unseen they exist in the collection due its role in capturing “the aspiration, character and imagination of the American people.” In other words, the use/value of the collection is accepted even before the efforts at national outreach or connection with visitors. I would argue, that it is only now with the unlimited capacity for representation with the Internet that museums are transforming the notion of “use” in a museum. Perhaps digital history is the new aspect of the museum/historical profession that can help transform the usefulness of the museum from the confines of its walls to bring history out to the “real world.”


    • You make an interesting point, items are deemed valuable as they enter a museum’s collection, and it is their perceived value that makes them acceptable to be apart of a museum. Your quote from the Smithsonian America Art Museum, collections capture “the aspiration, character and imagination of the American people,” brought to my mind the idea of a museum as a time capsule. Museum collections are representing what we as a society believe is representative of a type of history we want to save for future awareness. In that sense, yes, I believe collections serve a purpose even when they are not on display and when they live out their whole museum existence in storage. However, I am a practical person and when I think of how much money and time went into preserving and cataloging all of those objects in museum to only sit in storage, I feel it is a waste of resources. This is where digital history can bring a second purpose to those collections, and, to use your words, “transform the usefulness of the museum.” A purpose, that is more useful (in terms of number of audiences reached and contribution to furthering knowledge), in my opinion, than sitting in museum storage serving only as a way to preserve memory.


  4. Alexandra,
    Way to tie in the omnipresent voice that is Glassberg and his “sense of history/presence of the past” notion! Like you I am torn about digital history and this concept of authenticity. I actually went on a slight tangent in another comment and now I wish I had simply written my blog about this topic. However, I digress. Nothing compares to the experience of physically interacting with an object . The analog museum experience offers sensory interaction that one cannot enjoy online. And although said object is technically out of its original context a great curator can reinvigorate the objects history via poignant interpretation.

    However, when said object is digitized and made accessible in a 2D manner it is even further removed from its context. Sure, the same creative interpretation that takes place in a museum can happen online but has the object’s authenticity already be degraded too much? This is a question I find myself pondering often. The historian in me loves technology for all that it can provide as far as accessibility and interactivity. But I also hate it for what it may do to historical authenticity and authority. Nonetheless, as you said, at the very least digitized collections can spark initial interest in history that may inspire a search for history in the “real world.”


    • Hello Sydney,

      I think for the rest of my academic career I will always be thinking of history in terms of Glassberg or Tilden – they are inescapable!

      I believe the digitized objects can augment the physical object but can never replace the original, and therefore digitized objects are not authentic. I understand the usefulness of technology and all the ways it can help research and accessibility, but I do not want to see it as a replacement for ‘real world’ experience. Like you, I believe that nothing can replace the experience of physically interacting with an object. I go to the Air and Space Museum to touch a moon rock, not to look at picture of one!


  5. Alexandra–you raise some very good points here, and your considerations of authenticity and preservation in the digital sphere are particularly thought-provoking. I think you are completely right when you argue that digital copies of original collections are not the authentic, original ones. However, if we are to preserve the essence of these movies, songs, online games, or any other facet of our online culture, it does require that we remove the thing from its original technology, otherwise it will be lost. I think it is fascinating that adaptations and copies of films like Toy Story actually means transferring the movie to different technologies–essentially taking the “music out of the guitar,” as I quoted Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart in my blog post. That does present some new challenges to the ideas of authenticity and originality, as you argue. I think it is fascinating that adaptations and copies of films like Toy Story actually means transferring the movie to different tecnologies–essentially taking the “music out of the guitar,” as I quoted Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart in my blog post.

    I am with you when you say that digital history does not seem equal to place-based history, that digitized objects don’t really have the same power and meaning as the original thing. David Glassberg’s sentiments are very appropriate here. However, digital history is a fantastic way to reach broader audiences farther away than ever before. A fantastic way to try and remedy the sentiment expressed in the twitter quote, “collections are useless unless they are used.” Part of the reason so many museums house objects that are never used is because public individuals that might be interested in using them (seeing, researching, photographing, etc…) haven’t known where to look, or what museums even have. That, I think, is how digitization of collections could really transform the role of museum collections, and the relationships that museum staff have with the public.


    • Hi Chelsea,

      For the sake of accessibility and preservation I understand and accept the role of technology in history and museums. (I still prefer the real thing over a digital representation…but sometimes technology is the best alternative.) Through this class we have learned about so many different ways that technology can enhance how history is presented and understood in ways that hopefully reach broader audiences.

      Digitizing museum collections will help researchers find places, items, and institutions that can help with their project. You mentioned house museums and how many of their collections go unused because they are not known about outside of the museum. I know that many house museums struggle to stay afloat…maybe digitizing their collections should be their first priority. It may be that even just having lists of what their museum holds available online could help bring new support and awareness to their museum and its collections.

      It is one thing to have collections online, but they need to be find-able. I do not think we have discussed this much in class or in the readings, but I noticed that many items in online collections do not appear in Google searches. I am not sure how to remedy this problem, but is it something I want to bring up to discuss.


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