“Is the Music Inside the Guitar?:” Museum collections and the future of cultural authority

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?

How are museums relaying their information? What you have to say matters just as much as where you choose to say it.  cite: Randy Glassbergen, http://www.glasbergen.com/?s=social+media

What you have to say matters just as much as where you choose to say it. How should museums be relaying their research?
cite: Randy Glassbergen, http://www.glasbergen.com/?s=social+media

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.


4 thoughts on ““Is the Music Inside the Guitar?:” Museum collections and the future of cultural authority

  1. Chelsea,

    This is a very astute distillation on history museums in the digital space. The very prestige that distinguishes these cultural institutions is simultaneously de-prioritizing their worth. As the conference participant noted, collections are useless unless used.

    I’m curious, as a fellow oral historian, what are your thoughts on creating digital access to the objects and images you encounter in your research. For example, the Syphax family tree? As a cultural ambassador, do you feel pressed to make this widely available? And what if the family didn’t want to share it? How would you reconcile that?



  2. Hi Chelsea,

    I enjoyed reading your humorous prose!
    “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.”

    What you and many of us, including myself, discussed this week was accessibility and the uselessness of collections that only live in the museum. We are all urging history museums to embrace the digital world and put all their collections online. What we are all wondering is, what holding history museums back? Is it concern over the loss of authority? Money? Funding? Combination of all three? (I think so, but let us address authority, here.)

    You did an excellent job bringing in Ippolito and Reinhart’s work into this discussion. Formal social memory does rely on on preserving something that is “unmovable, ” to quote their terminology. As “unmovable” institutions go digital, slowly transforming and falling into the category of informal social memory, there is hesitation and resistance on the behalf of history museums. Are we, as historians, more concerned over the loss of control over the production of historical knowledge, or the loss of control over the information on the collections themselves? By opening ALL the collections online, museums are opening themselves up to scrutiny over how they obtained those collections, which calls to mind our class on ethics last semester. Considering the vastness of some of these large institution collection, there are bound to be some skeletons in the closet.


    • Thank you both for your thoughtful comments!

      Danielle you had some great points about the questions around oral histories and digital access? What if the narrators we interview do not want the world to have access to their words? This is of course a very important question, and one that is pretty heavily discussed in the field of oral history. I think it will depend on the copyright that the narrators sign. Did they agree to open access, or are they just providing their oral history for a specific group of people? It depends on each group, but I think the underlying theme here is: museums should make their materials as accessible as they can, based on the different limitations their collections have.

      Alexandra you raise a very important issue for museums–if they make everything open access, that means all their skeletons (metaphorical and/or literal) are exposed. The truth of the matter is that many museums (especially the older ones) were founded with collections and practices that do not follow the protocols that are in place today (or are supposed to be). As society changes, so do museum best practices. But the evidence of past practices remains in our collections, so how do we explain this to the public? Why do we have human remains, Native American burial objects donated by a White family, or even objects that we have no idea where they came from?

      It won’t be a flattering process for museums for sure. But I think it is an important one. After all, we are cultural institutions charged with preserving our histories and interpreting them for people in the present. Self reflection as institutions has the potential to set a great precedent moving forward. I think digitizing objects can also prompt museum staff to take actions with certain areas of their collections if needed. It could hold us accountable for what we house too. If we are uncomfortable digitizing something, should we be deaccessioning or repatriating it?


  3. Pingback: “I have no idea what I’m doing but I know I’m doing it really, really well.” A Digital History course reflection | The Historian's Web

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