To be cont.

Coming from Newcastle Australia, there aren’t many people who share my interest in museums, the web and evolving digital heritage. So the best thing about attending MW2011 in April was that I met a small community of like-minded souls who are similarly passionate about this topic. And being Net-geeks, that passion translates into online interactions via twitter, blogs and other sites.

Therefore I’ve decided to start blogging about museums and the web. This will have a dual purpose… both so that I can engage in the debate that is happening within the field; and to explore ideas relevant to my PhD. The first three posts were originally listed on my personal blog.

The breadth of change happening in the field is a significant challenge to my research. My PhD study is focussed on examining how evolving archival memory practices impacts the online museum collection. However, this is very broad, and there is so much happening in this field all the time that anything I write now might be completely irrelevant in three years. So my first step is to work out whether I can justify this idea that there has been a regime change in archival memory practices, and if so, precisely what that means.

I first came across the idea reading Geoffrey Bowker’s Memory Practices in the Sciences. He writes

With digital archiving in all its forms, a new regime of technologies for holding and shaping experience has emerged. Our past has always been malleable, but now it is malleable with a new viscosity. The new texture of our past is that we can go from the global to the local and back again with great speed. [1]

Bowker argues that changes in the way a society archives bring about new memory practices, and that “each new medium imprints its own special flavour to the memories of that epoch.”[2] Further, he writes that sets of memory practices become articulated into “memory regimes, which articulate technologies and practices into relatively historically constant sets of memory practices that permit both the creation of a continuous, useful past and the transmission sub rosa of information, stories, and practices from our wild, discontinuous, ever-changing past.”[3]

As an institution of memory, the museum has been a vehicle for such memory practices in which a seemingly consistent and useful story of our past has been constructed and transmitted. Since inception, the museum has played a critical role in the formation, preservation and dissemination of our collective memories, and therefore, of our social, political and cultural identity. Museums have existed as repositories of material objects that help foster an understanding of the world by providing a means for interpreting the past and present, in order to anticipate the future.

However, the context in which the online museum collection is situated is a vastly different one from previous collections. People can access and interact with the online museum collection in new ways, particularly as the Internet becomes increasingly social.

We also now have things like born digital museums to consider – museums that exist without a physical location. At MW2011 Jasper Visser from the Dutch Museum of National History hosted an unconference session on born digital museums, and one of the conclusions that was drawn from the group was that

A digital museum should have digital representations of artefacts (and especially born digital artefacts). However, it should not be a nearly endless bunch of fabulous data. Every artefact and every presentation requires an (emotionally) inspiring narrative to trigger discovery and curiosity… The context of the artefacts (stories, etc.) and connections with other sources of information and experience are more important in the digital museum than the artefact itself.

So here we move away from the notion that the museum is about objects, and towards a notion that the museum, particularly online, is about ideas and story-telling – about connection. Arguably this has always been the case, but the way that people can interact with online museum objects is now vastly different from the way they can interact with the physical object in the rarefied environment of the museum.

In his Ignite Smithsonian talk (head to about 48.30), Koven Smith of the Denver Art Museum asks why we have online collections. He calls for museums to “disambiguate the physical experience from the digital experience completely,” and to do what he terms ‘agile content development’ – quick, responsive development of limitless content, and limitless kinds of experiences. He envisions effective museums online as those institutions who can enable experience, rather than simply producing content, and instead making it so that people can access useful content online – whether it is produced by the museum or by others.

He concludes with a question: “In a world where there there is youtube, there is facebook, exactly why would someone come to your museum website? What’s the reason? As soon as we can answer that question, we’re going to build finally a website that makes sense – at least to me, and hopefully to the rest of you.”

Why should we create online collections? I think that if memory practices are undergoing regime change, if the way our society accesses and shapes the past is becoming digital, then anything that’s left offline is at risk of being forgotten through sheer inconvenience of access.

But why would people access online collections, and continue to use them? And what is the role of the museum in a world where everything is archived, and sites like wikipedia and google exist and are people’s first ports for seeking knowledge and understanding? Well, they are harder questions… But I think that Jasper is probably right when he argues that museums must now see ideas and connections – more than simply artefacts – as central to their role online.

[1] Geoffrey Bowker, Memory Practices in the Sciences, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 2005: 5
[2] Bowker, Memory Practices in the Sciences, 5
[3] Bowker, Memory Practices in the Sciences, 9