This week I ventured into the personally unchartered territory of digital collections. Drawing on my research with Japanese coins, I created a collection titled From Tokugawa to Meiji: Japanese Coins. Omeka.net describes itself as a “web-publishing platform that allows anyone with an account to create or collaborate on a website to display collections and build digital exhibitions.”
From what I observed, Omeka.net actually requires a lot of the same skills that collections managers need to do their job well. Most notably, this is an aptitude for detail. For a big thinker like me, this posed a challenge. To create a collection, I first needed to fill in all the vague titles with text boxes underneath them. What is the subject? Is it the historic subject? the thematic subject? the categorical subject? What on earth am I supposed to write under contributor? I already said I created it, and what the original source was, and who published it. What more do they want??? Clearly, I am not in a museum management program for this very reason.
Therefore, as I began to tackle my class assignment to create a digital collection of at least 10 items on Omeka.net, I decided to stick with a topic I know quite well. As an intern at the National Museum of American History, I have been researching and writing about a collection of Japanese coins originally belonging to Ulysses S. Grant. These coins span from the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) to the Meiji Period (1868-1912). In my research I emphasize the shift between the diverse, often local coins of the Tokugawa period to the strict, politically and economically unified coinage system of the Meiji era. I thought I would show that shift with pictures of coins from both eras!
As I created this exhibition, I thought a lot about the differences between looking at this online collection that I created in a matter of hours, and the collection I have the privilege of working with at the NMAH. On the one hand, these (minimally) contextualized pictures are accessible to vast numbers of people all over the world. On the other, are we losing power or emotion when we look at a picture of an object rather than an object itself? Tim Sherratt has a few thoughts on this,
In the realm of cultural heritage, digitisation is frequently assumed to be a process of loss. We create surrogates, or derivatives — useful, but somehow inferior representations of ‘the real thing’.
He goes on to argue,
It’s about taking cultural heritage collections and changing them. Changing what we can do with them. Changing how we see them. Changing how we think about them.
I think this is a powerful sentiment. I am not taking away anything by creating an online exhibit of photographs of coins. (Even though I personally believe nothing can compare to holding the real artifact in my hands). Rather, I am participating in cultural changes that allow us as historians to reimagine how to interpret collections in digital space. Yet, as exciting as this new frontier in cyberspace is, we need to be thinking carefully about the best practices for how to present these collections as historians.This, is a common sentiment for digital humanists and archivists who work to make sense of what collections should look like on the web.
One sentiment archivist Kate Theimer has about what is lost when we create digital collections is what her field calls “respect des fonds,” the importance of preserving the original context of a collection along with the items in the collection. This does concern me to some extent—who am I to collect ten separate photographs of Japanese coins and term it an archive? But I do think digital collections offer a lot of new possibilities. We are creating new meanings now—perhaps meanings that archivists/digital humanists/or whatever these fields will be called in the future can value as saying something about how we have made meanings in the present.
Another consideration I had while creating my collection concerns what Trevor Owens writes in his draft style guide for digital collection hypertexts,
Every narrative page stands on it’s own: The web is not a physical space and you have no control over what page someone will see first.
Although we can argue that museum professions never had control over what exactly audiences would see first, this sentiment is especially true with new media. What someone sees and why they want to see it will inevitably vary. Therefore, I tried to provide the relevant context in all ten of my objects, so that anyone anywhere would be able to quickly orient themselves to the object, as well as how it fits into the collection. While the idea that viewers will come at digital exhibits from all sides can be initially disorienting, I also think it is exciting. Does your big idea tying the objects together work? If it does, this new way of free digital access shouldn’t detract from what you have to say. If anything, it should strengthen the correlations we see as historians.