In a way, the museum professional’s worst nightmare for their physical collections should be their highest digital aspiration. The online universe needs museum professionals to digitally tear open their cabinets, rummage through their vaults and welcome (if not urge) online users to stampede through the “staff only” floors. This is because online availability of resources matters if museums want to remain cultural authorities in the digital age.
As Sheila A. Brennan states in her article Getting to the Stuff: Digital Cultural Heritage Collections, Absence, and Memory,
“there is a problem: history museums in the US generally do not share much online, and when they do share little of it is discoverable, open, or extractable–unlike libraries and some archival collections that have made great strides in digitization, many museum catalogs are not shared or digitized.”
Brennan raises an important issue—availability on the web. Many museums maintain a professionalism of distance between their collections and visitors. The Smithsonian Institution estimates that less than 2% of their collections are on display at any given time. Same goes for the Wisconsin Historical Society. A similarly low display percentage characterizes most museums. The rest of the museums’ collections are stored in vaults or behind the scenes cabinets, away from public view. Artifacts that do make it on display are often carefully positioned in glass cases, watched by security guards and protected by alarms. This is all crucial. How else are we supposed to preserve our collections so they will exist in the future?
Yet, it seems that the world online needs museum professionals to think about their collections in ways that may contradict how they would have thought about them twenty years ago. Preservation of the past is coming to mean something very different on the world wide web. As Brennan asks provocatively,
“With many students and scholars beginning their research with online search and discovery tools, if cultural heritage collections are not visible online, in some form, what are the implications of these absences?”
It would seem that one implication is that museums won’t be a part of the online discussions of the historical events that they seek to preserve. They will lose cultural impact as historical authorities. Perhaps it is time for museums to unlock their vaults to the public online.
Many are trying to. As Aaron Cope and Seb Chan of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum argue, “No longer can objects be collected simply for their long term significance (or scarcity), but for the conversations that they enable the museum to engage in the contemporary moment.” Likewise, the National Museum of American History’s National Numismatic Collection recently digitized series of banknote proof sheets. Once the photos went online (usually 36 hours after the photo was taken), they could be analyzed and transcribed by digital volunteers from around the world.
Things are happening, but perhaps not with the speed and urgency as they should.
Part of the disconnect here may be what Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart describe in their book, Re-collection: Art, New Media and Social Memory as the differences between formal social memory versus informal social memory.
“Formal social memory often emphasizes preserving a cultural object in its original fixed form as a way of maintaining its historical accuracy and authorial integrity (storage). Informal social memory, on the other hand, often emphasizes updating or recreating the cultural object as a way of keeping it alive (migration, emulation, and reinterpretation) (15).”
In other words, “Is the Music Inside the Guitar (24)?” The role museums play as cultural authorities is important, they help make meaning from the past. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen were happy to report in their oft cited study, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life that Americans trust museums as authorities on the past. Online, with information overload on any historical topic one can dream up–the past seems present like never before. Now almost twenty years after Rosenzweig and Thelen first published, I think there might be some new questions to consider. How can museums best maintain their cultural authority online? Shouldn’t the historical music also be played on the instrument that is the world wide web? Shouldn’t museums be valuing their online presence as much as their offline one?
Rinehart, Richard, and Jon Ippolito. 2014. Re-collection: art, new media, and social memory. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=798342.
Rosenzweig, Roy, and David P. Thelen. 1998. The presence of the past popular uses of history in American life. New York: Columbia University Press. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=68575.