This week’s readings (http://chnm.gmu.edu/essays-on-history-new-media/essays/?essayid=47; http://www.lotfortynine.org/2012/11/getting-to-the-stuff-digital-cultural-heritage-collections-absence-and-memory/; http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/november-2013/material-culture-in-the-digital-frame/artifacts-as-pixels-pixels-as-artifacts) are again an extension of the discussion we’ve been having over the last couple of weeks on digitization of museum and archives collections.
As I’ve stated before, I am very much in favor of digitization and making collections more accessible online. I feel though that the Sheila Brennan/T. Mills Kelly articles lack a real-world perspective. The articles find fault in the efforts history museums have made in making their collections available online and creating a more interactive online experience. The real problem lies with a lack of resources – time, money and labor. The majority of history museums are small and local and often run by volunteers or only a small staff. The staff often have limited web expertise and they learn as they go with online projects. The task of digitizing actual documents and photographs often falls to interns and volunteers. Adding records for objects and attaching all relevant data usually falls to the staff. And then it all needs to be uploaded to the website or database – yet another task for the staff or perhaps that gets outsourced to a computer professional (which, of course, costs money). Databases and websites need to be monitored and updated as well. So digitization becomes a huge task with a lot of costs – it definitely has benefits for the museum but it can be quite difficult for a museum (of any size) to start this project and keep it up.
Martha Sandweiss points out some real drawbacks to digitization and how it creates a certain gap of understanding of the artifact. The digitization process takes the artifact further out of context. Often there is not substitute for the researcher or the museum visitor for seeing and sometimes handling an artifact in person. There is no substitute for being able to stand next to a painting that is so large, you almost feel a part of it or to examine a document or object and see all the details and nuances. (One of the perks of working in collections management is getting to working with “the stuff” and I’ve been so privileged to see and handle some incredible things. The experience of handling an object that once belonged to Robert E. Lee is far removed to looking at a digitized photo of it!)
While digitization certainly helps increase access to collections and artifacts, museums need to strike a balance of their online presence and content and their in-person, in-house programming and experiences and the digital history community needs to understand that.
Happy Archives Month!!!
For me, this week’s readings (http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/collecting/ ,http://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/dh/12172434.0001.001/1:4/–hacking-the-academy-new-approaches-to-scholarship?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#4.7) are a continuation of last week’s readings and discussion about digital humanities.
This week however really emphasizes the importance of archivists. I have several friends who are archivists and I am fascinated by what they do, but I am more happy to benefit from their expertise while I work more with objects. Recently, I have been guest curating an exhibit for the Baltimore Museum of Industry and have worked closely with their archivist to gather photos and background information. It’s been a great collaborative experience – he’s helped me find (and choose) some great photographs and has steered me towards sources of information needed. Working with him has helped develop my own research skills.
I came across this post today from the Smithsonian about their “Ask an Archivist” Day. http://siarchives.si.edu/blog/ask-and-archivist-bring-your-questions-monday-october-27 I find the descriptions of the different kinds of archivists there to be quite interesting and am glad to see the Smithsonian dedicating some of their efforts to preserving their own digitally-born history. I also find it interesting that this whole “event” occurs solely on their Facebook page. It’s very informative and apropos to our discussions this week.
Now go out and thank an archivist!!!
The reading from Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/digitizing/ in particular resonated with me. I started volunteering and working in the museum field about 7 years ago and one of the things I have noticed is the push for museums to digitize their collections and make them available online. At the very minimum most museums are expected to have a web site with a link to information about their collection highlights. Expectations are now leaning towards museums providing a link to a searchable database of at least part of their collection.
I have done some work in posting select collection objects to a searchable portal and it’s not easy. There were issues with the compatibility of the collections software the museum used, the online portal, and editing the amount of information that was sent to the portal. Ultimately, it didn’t happen. The museum board assumed it could be done easily so no real plan was made and eventually the project was dropped. But I have been at other museums where the effort to digitize has been successful and is ongoing. The response from the public and researchers has been very enthusiastic and requests for copies of photographs and other images is a good source of revenue for the museum.
I know that many museums had concerns in the beginning that digitizing and making images of their collections available online would decrease their visitation – in truth, it has actually helped increase visitation as people are more curious about the museum and want to see the actual object(s) they saw online. I think it’s definitely the path that museums and other public institutions not just should take, but MUST take in order to attract more attention to themselves and attract researchers and visitors.